Death is messy — for the living.
On Wednesday, Dictionary.com released its list of words and phrases that were added to the dictionary this year. Among those that stood out? Death cleaning — which the company defines as “the process of cleaning and decluttering one’s home so as to spare others, especially family members, from the chore of it after one’s death.”
Jane Solomon, linguist-in-residence at Dictionary.com, says that it’s a literal translation of the Swedish term döstädning, which is a combination of dö meaning “to die” and städning, meaning “to tidy, clean, clean up, clean out.”
“Death cleaning, both the term and practice, were popularized in the U.S. with the release of the English translation of the book “Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning” by Swedish artist Margareta Magnusson,” explains Soloman.
“We added this definition to Dictionary.com this year because it’s an interesting term that filled a gap in the English language. The U.S. is often seen as a materialistic place, and I think people who are grappling with their amassed possessions crave concepts like death cleaning or the KonMari method as they seek a more minimalistic lifestyle,” she adds.
Many children who’ve had the weighty task of cleaning their deceased parents homes themselves will no doubt feel relief that this term is getting popularized. Indeed, those who’ve done the deed — while they say there are meaningful, good parts of it — tell MarketWatch that it can be heartbreaking and stressful.
When Deanne Marie’s mom passed away in 2007, the Las Vegas-based creative director says that it took her months to clean out her mom’s home because of her emotional state. “I would go over to her house after work … walk through the front door and just cry for about 45 minutes, turn around and go home. This went on for about three months. I was paralyzed with grief.” She finally had to enlist friends to help to get the job done, and says the whole process has been a lesson that has “made me look at what I’m keeping and why. I don’t want my nephew to go through what I did, once I’m gone.”
It seemingly wasn’t much easier for Winter Haven, Fla., resident Mary Joye, who cleaned her mother’s home after she died in 2011. “Stressful is an understatement,” she says. “Not only did I clean out my parents house, but my father’s office notes and three warehouses of stuff … I found items that I purchased them at Tiffany’s a long time ago along with junk from dollar stores and trash.”
And for marketing consultant Paige Arnof-Fenn whose mom died in 2010, the process took 2 ½ years, as her mother was “a bit of a pack rat/hoarder,” she says. “It was exhausting,” she says, but adds that it “also made me start to pare down my own clutter.” And when her dad (who was divorced from her mom) passed three years ago, the process was “much easier because I asked him to start cleaning out his stuff before he died.”
Now Arnof-Fenn says she tells “everyone to ask their parents while they are still alive a lot of questions and have them give things to their grandkids directly” as “it will mean a lot more to them and you will get the stories of why the things are important.”