Swedish Death Cleaning

Friday, 27 November 2020

(Sirach 7)

For we brought nothing into the world,

and it is certain we carry nothing out.

The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away;

blessed be the name of the LORD (BCP 2019, p. 250).

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

I may have mentioned before that I love books.  So does my wife, which is one of the reasons I love her so much.  Our marriage of forty-three years is secured not only by the vows we made before God, but by the horrible thought of having to fight for custody of communal books:  better to stay together for the sake of the library.

I haven’t purchased or read it yet, but one of my favorite book titles of the last couple of years comes from Margareta Magnusson:  The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning.  This is the way Amazon describes the book:

In Sweden there is a kind of decluttering called döstädning, meaning “death” and städning meaning “cleaning.” This surprising and invigorating process of clearing out unnecessary belongings can be undertaken at any age or life stage but should be done sooner than later, before others have to do it for you. In The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning, artist Margareta Magnusson, with Scandinavian humor and wisdom, instructs readers to embrace minimalism. Her radical and joyous method for putting things in order helps families broach sensitive conversations, and makes the process uplifting rather than overwhelming.

The basic idea behind the book is simple enough:  no one wants to dispose of your stuff when you die.  So, you do your family a great service by “death cleaning” while you are still alive:  by giving away what you no longer need or use, by accumulating less, by eliminating the stuff that clutters your life and the space in which you live it.  I really need this book.  I need to read it and then give it away, so that it doesn’t become an ironic example.

I look around the room from which I’m speaking to you, my study at Apostles.  As relatively minimal as it is, it is still chocked with stuff that means a great deal to me and which will become nothing but a burden to those who will come after me.  On the wall behind my desk are my framed, ordination certificates.  Where will these end up when I’m gone?  Who could possibly want them?  There is a marble topped table behind me which serves as an altar.  It was first used in the Oak Ridge National Labs, then donated to the Oak Ridge School System, then re-purposed as a demonstration table by my wife who taught there.  It was to be thrown away when she retired, so she was allowed to take it.  It is now an altar and it means a great deal to me.  When I’m gone, it will be a burden to the one who inherits this study:  a back breakingly heavy burden to the one who has to move it.  There are icons and pictures and books and coffee cups — lots of coffee cups.  If I embraced death cleaning in my study, what would be left?  Who would want my stuff when I’m gone?

Our morning reading from Sirach brings all this to mind.  This book, The Wisdom of Jesus the Son of Sirach, is one of the apocryphal books that we read, not to establish doctrine, but “for example of life and instruction of manners” (Article VI).  It is also called Ecclesiasticus which I’ve heard translated as the Church Book, so named because the early church put so much stock in its wisdom.  If you haven’t read it, or haven’t read it in awhile, I commend it to you.

So, what in Sirach reminded me of The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning?  

In all you do, remember the end of your life, and you will never sin (Sirach 7:36).

This is a Swedish death cleaning of the whole of your life, not for the sake of those who come after you and must deal with the stuff you’ve left behind — though that’s important, too — but for your own sake, for the sake of your soul.  It is a guard against spiritual clutter.

In all you do, remember the end of your life, and you will never sin (Sirach 7:36).

Döstädning, the Swedes call it:  death cleaning.  Memento mori the early Latin-speaking Christians called it:  remembrance of death.  Regardless of the language you choose, the same pastoral theology lies at the heart of the Ash Wednesday liturgy.  You know the words and the action I mean:

Then ashes are imposed with the following words

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return (BCP 2019, p. 545).

The idea has even entered the popular, self-help culture.  Stephen Covey, author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, identified it as the second of his seven habits:  Begin with the end in mind.  Now, granted, he did not have death as the end in mind, but it is the natural extension of his principle, his idea writ large and ultimate.  

In all you do, remember the end of your life, and you will never sin (Sirach 7:36).

This takes on special significance for those who follow Christ, because we know the end of our life is not really the end of our life.

2 Corinthians 5:10 (ESV): 10 For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil. 

So, from a Christian perspective, we might amend Sirach a bit:

In all you do, remember the end of your life — that you must appear before the judgment seat of Christ — and you will never sin.

So, let me get practical — pastoral — for a moment.  How can we use this notion of death cleaning or remembrance of death as we work out our salvation with fear and trembling?

Have you ever struggled with a decision?  Have you ever faced a choice and felt the need for some key to discernment, a key that seemed just beyond reach?  Try this:

In all you do, remember the end of your life — that you must appear before the judgment seat of Christ — and you will never sin.

Ask yourself this question:  Which decision, which choice would I want to present and defend to Christ when I appear before his great judgment seat?  Because your life will end and you will appear before Christ and you will give account on that day for what you’ve done, even for the idle words you have spoken.  And so will I; so will we all.

In all you do, remember the end of your life — that you must appear before the judgment seat of Christ — and you will never sin.

Here’s another good exercise, another good question to ask in the vein of döstädning and memento mori:  What kind of person do I want to be when I die and stand before the judgment seat of Christ?  Keep asking follow up questions.  What must I do, or refrain from doing now, in the present moment, to become that kind of person?  What should fill my mind?  What should occupy my hands, my work?  What relationships should I pursue and what relationships should I relinquish?

In all you do, remember the end of your life — that you must appear before the judgment seat of Christ — and you will never sin.

And in keeping with the notion of death cleaning, of giving away in the present what you can’t hold onto after death, try this question:

What of my time, talent, and treasure am I hoarding now that I should be giving away?

That one pinches a bit, doesn’t it?  Henry David Thoreau insisted that we cannot kill time without wounding eternity.  I might add that we cannot hoard time for our own without robbing eternity.  And how often do we deny a talent — a God-given gift — not out of genuine humility but simply because we don’t want to be bothered to share it, to do the hard and time-consuming work of exercising the gift that God has given us for the benefit of his Kingdom.  And treasure:  hoarding treasure?  Me?  The second coat in my closet cries out against me when my brother or sister who has none shivers in the cold.  And to think that, at my death, someone will have to figure out what to do with that coat, when I could spare them that trouble right now.

Please understand, beloved, that I am not trying to make you feel guilty:  far from it!  These words of Sirach and these words are mine are not intended to look backward in judgment, but to point the way forward in hope.

In all you do, remember the end of your life, and you will never sin (Sirach 7:36).

This isn’t guilt inducing, but life giving.  That’s what we long for, isn’t it?  To remember the end of our life now so that we will not sin in the time of our mortal life, so that we will be pleasing to our Lord when we stand before his judgment seat, so that we will hear his glorious words, “Well done, good and faithful servant.  Enter into the joy of your Lord.”

This kind of death cleaning is really life cleaning.

In all you do, remember the end of your life, and you will never sin (Sirach 7:36).

Amen.

About johnaroop

I am a husband, father, retired teacher, lover of books and music and coffee and, as of 17 May 2015, by the grace of God and the will of his Church, an Anglican priest in the Anglican Church in North America, Anglican Diocese of the South. I serve as assisting priest at Apostles Anglican Church in Knoxville, TN, and as Canon Theologian for the Anglican Diocese of the South.
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1 Response to Swedish Death Cleaning

  1. Mark Jerde says:

    “Our marriage of forty-three years is secured not only by the vows we made before God, but by the horrible thought of having to fight for custody of communal books: better to stay together for the sake of the library.” 🙂

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