The taboo topic of death clutter, and why we need to talk about it

While grieving the death of a parent, decluttering the parent’s home is the last thing anyone feels like doing. But that is exactly what many adult children have to do.

Death clutter house

Angela’s wake-up call was when a good friend died and she helped the family to sort through her apartment that was crammed full of her possessions. She told me it took four of them an entire week. Half the items went to charity shops, 20 percent was recycled, and everything else, except for a couple of suitcases full of legal and financial documents and a few valuable things, went to landfill. All the items that had had such sentimental value to her friend turned out to mean nothing at all to anyone else.

Returning home, Angela took a long, slow walk through each room of her own, much larger house, and realized it contained three times as much stuff as her friend’s. The stark reality of her death had highlighted her own mortality (they were both in their early seventies) and how she certainly didn’t want to cause so much work for her family after she was gone.

She emailed me that night and booked my help to start decluttering her home from top to bottom the following week. Any time she wavered in her determination to get the job done, she reminded herself that she was doing it for her family’s sake. Or, as she good-humouredly put it, ‘If I wasn’t already dead at the time, I would die of embarrassment if I left this mess for them to sort out.’

Emotional meltdown

Angela was fortunate to take events in her stride, but not everyone does. Sometimes the chaos left after a death can be totally overwhelming.

Another woman called Jennifer told me how she and her husband took a 12-hour flight to take care of legal matters after her father-in-law died and then returned three months later with their daughter to clear out his apartment. It measured only 650 square feet (about 60 square metres) but was packed to the brim with over 50 years’ of his accumulations and his wife’s, who had died seven years earlier. Working on it every day for a month, the massive clear-out was only 70 percent complete when they had to leave to return home. A third trip was needed to finish the job and decide what to do with the apartment.

‘It was overwhelming’, Jennifer said, ‘and we all had full-blown emotional meltdowns or came close to it during the process. My in-laws were beautiful humans. They were loving, helpful, caring and generous people who lived very frugally. However, they amassed so much stuff that they couldn’t possibly have used it all in their lifetimes.’

Death clutter lessons learned

At one poignant point during the clear-out, they were sorting through a shelf that contained all her father-in-law’s pay stubs since 1947. He had kept every single one.

‘OK, now I know what I will have to encounter and deal with eventually too’, sighed the daughter, referring to the mother’s habit of saving paperwork.

‘Hmmm…’ thought the mother and the father.

After returning to their home, they gathered up a large pile of obsolete documents and all the pay stubs they had both been collecting for the previous 20 years.

‘Several hours of shredding later’, the mother said, ‘we were happy to call our daughter to report (and laugh about the fact) that she will not have to deal with that issue at least!’

Copyright © Clear Space Living Ltd, 2019

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About Karen Kingston

Karen Kingston is a leading expert in clutter clearing, space clearing, feng shui and healthy homes. Her two international bestselling books have combined sales of over three million copies in 26 languages and have established themselves as "must read" classics in their fields. Her best-known title, Clear Your Clutter with Feng Shui, is now in its fourth edition. She is best known for her perspective-changing insights and practical solutions that enable more conscious navigation of 21st-century living.
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4 Responses to The taboo topic of death clutter, and why we need to talk about it

  1. Gosh, I am not looking forward to the day when my father passes away. He is a hoarder and has filled up a house, both upstairs & downstairs, the large yard and a very huge industrial sized shed and possibly another smaller shed which I don’t know the location of. I have raised the issue with him a few times hoping to start a conversation around it but I never get anywhere.

    Some years ago I left him an iPod with a copy of your audiobook on it in the hope that maybe he might listen to it. I don’t know if he did (I doubt it) but I could only try.

    On top, not looking forward to the mammoth task of dealing with this clutter in the future, I feel I am somewhat energetically tied to this clutter as it is in the family home and myself and siblings had a dysfunctional and abusive upbringing. I have done a lot of work to heal (and am still working on healing) from this but a part of me feels that even when I finish dealing with my own clutter that I won’t be truly free until that house, shed/s and clutter is gone.

  2. The strangest thing about keeping past pay stubs is this: Who sits down and lovingly reminices while thumbing through decades worth of mouldering old pay stubs? If you live in the USA, and want to keep a record, each year’s net earnings are listed on your annual Social Security statement (I don’t know what other nations do).

    Just keep the most recent one and shred the one(s) from the year before. Repeat each successive year until you reach retirement. Your life earnings will all be listed, year by year, on one form. Voila! Just one piece of paper for your family to dispose of when you cross over (or, since you can’t take it with you, you could shred that one, too)!

  3. In Sweden, where I live, there is a word for what Angela did: dödstädning. It literally means death cleaning, and quite a few people (though certainly not everyone) does this at some point. My mother did. She downsized her home and her life when she was in her late seventies, moving to a smaller home and getting rid of everything she didn’t particularly want or need, giving away books and furniture to young relatives who were grateful to get designer pieces from the 1940s, 50s and 60s (“Why should they have to wait until I’m dead?”), donating the things that nobody else wanted to charity and no doubt throwing away a lot more. When she died at age 85 it took me and my sister one day to completely clean out her house for its new occupant. I hope I will have the strength of character to do the same when it’s my turn.

  4. What a thoughtful and well written article this is Karen. It really puts things into perspective and helps us understand the importance of living clutter free, so that the people we eventually leave behind get an easier closure perhaps. Which made me also think of sorting my electronic clutter, photos saved in iCloud/Google Photos etc. Thank you so much.

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