Why 'death cleaning' could improve your time living

CBC happiness columnist Jennifer Moss looks at why people around the world are embracing "death cleaning."
Ann-Sofie Persson (right) gives some of her belongings away to a friend as part of a Swedish "death cleaning" tradition. (S. Thacker/CBC)

It's going to happen to all of us, but most Canadians don't like to talk about death. Preparing for the eventuality isn't any easier.

But some people are taking up a practice known as "death cleaning."

CBC happiness columnist Jennifer Moss explains to Craig Norris, host of CBC Radio's The Morning Edition, why the practice can make our time living a lot happier.

Craig Norris: What does death cleaning actually mean?

Jennifer Moss: Well it sounds horrible, but it does actually come from the Swedish word döstädning — which is just a hybrid for death and cleaning. But as morbid as it sounds, it's actually just the process of cleaning the house before you die, so you don't leave it up to the loved ones to have to deal with it.

CN: Is it like Marie Kondo — that tidying up trend where you recommend getting rid of things that no longer bring you joy?

JM: Yes, so there are similarities, although Marie Kondo probably would never say death cleaning ever. But it's all about decluttering and downsizing. But where Marie Kondo would say to recycle or to only keep things that give us joy, the difference here is that we are actually giving the things that give us joy away before we die. It's just sort of that acceptance of aging and the cathartic kind of giving away stuff, versus leaving it in our will for someone to pick through later.

CN: Besides the fights that might ensue with giving your stuff away, what ways does death cleaning help us?

JM: Well, there is a really great book that sort of kicked this whole trend off. It's The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning. And the author — who says she's between 80 and 100, she doesn't want to give her age away — she worked with scientists and what they found was that it actually decreases stress because clutter is obviously unhealthy. It goes back to the Marie Kondo stuff. But what it really does is it creates conversations. So families have conversations when someone chooses to go through this process. It brings up those taboo subjects about death and what's going to happen after and what we're going to do with our possessions later.

CN: If someone wanted to start death cleaning today how should they start?

JM: Just generally to declutter is a good thing. So we should go through our garages and get rid of all this stuff. But at this point it's really just about going through all the stuff that's nostalgic for you. Maybe it's the wedding dress that you've boxed up or the silverware that grandma has passed on to you and going through those sort of nostalgic pieces and then giving them away. There's actually a really great example of this family — this really wealthy couple actually who decided to downsize their home. And they instead had a party, gave people champagne and then they had everyone come over and just pick four items that they really wanted from the house and watch these people enjoy the stuff that they no longer wanted to have or own or put in storage until they were gone. 

CN:[Earlier] you talked about death kits. What's a death kit?

JM: So death kits are really important and it's actually now discussed quite often when people create wills. But what it is is those passwords to laptops and to any sort of digital devices. I was just having a conversation about a husband who died suddenly — what happened was they couldn't get into their phones or laptops. And so it ended up that this wife had to hire a lawyer and then get a hacker to get into the stuff that her husband just took for granted when he passed away suddenly. So these death kits basically are just simple to use tools for people to be able to get into all of those things that are behind passwords.

CN:How do you see this playing out here in Canada? ... We are still reticent to talk about death.

JM: It's sort of a Western cultural phenomenon. We just don't talk about death, it's either just we're uncomfortable about it or we're stoic. And even more than half of Canadians don't have a will. So there's a lot of people that are leaving it, kicking the can down the road until they're gone. And the thing is that you know we have to understand that this is really stressful for people after someone passes away. You're grieving and now you're dealing with all of this other stuff, which adds to the process of grieving.

One of my favourite sayings applies here — you can't drag the U-Haul behind the hearse and we can't take it with us. So when we think about what we're consuming right now today, let's think about do we need that thing? Do we need to hold it in our basement? Do we need to go through this process of death cleaning? If we start to think about consuming experiences not stuff and focusing more on a life like that and then death cleaning will be less of a stress later on and less of a stress for our family to deal with after we're gone.

Edited for clarity and brevity.