Why Swedish Death Cleaning is not catching on in South African homes

Business Insider SA
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  • Swedish Death Cleaning is about getting rid of your possessions when you no longer have a use for them.
  • Treasured possession should be passed on to the next generation while you are still alive.
  • In South Africa, many people still hoard heirlooms. 

Margareta Magnusson, the bestselling author of The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning (How to Free Yourself and Your Family from a Lifetime of Clutter), can't stress this enough: it’s your responsibility to relieve your children of the burden (and sometimes enormous cost) of getting rid of your possessions when you no longer have use for them.

She outlined the Swedish phenomenon of 'death cleaning' in her book. It's about tidying up, minimising, and giving away heirlooms and treasured possessions to those you intend them for, while you are still alive.

Magnusson’s book was released last year, and, well, the concept really hasn’t caught on in South Africa. 

We spoke to Judith Penny, owner of local de-cluttering business All Sorted Now, who explained that seniors often struggle with disorganisation and hoarding. There are a number of reasons for this, she says, from the simple accumulation of possessions over a lifetime, to a need to keep things "just in case".

There is usually a sentimental value and emotional attachment to items. “Sometimes they paid good money for the item or they think the item is very valuable. More often they think family might want it one day.” 

Penny explained that very often, retirees assume their kids want certain items and then can’t believe that they don’t. “There is a perceived value which unfortunately is mostly connected to the sentimental: My granny gave that to me, it’s very old, so it must be valuable. I have clients who hold onto heirlooms thinking their kids will want them, which so often they don’t. I have clients who hold onto their kids’ stuff – school books, soft toys, even clothes, because they can’t bear to part with them.”  

In her 15 years in the business, Penny says she most often is called in to assist in homes where there is “just too much stuff”. Many people hang on to items that are perceived as potentially useful, she says. “I have clients who hold onto useful items - even if they are broken - in case they need them one day. Appliances like kettles and irons pile up in the garage or spare room.

How does all this stuff build up, and why do we keep it?

Penny, who is also vice president of the Professional Organiser Association Africa, says that families upgrade, renovate and move with fashion trends. “A huge amount of money is spent on new cushions, upholstery, curtains and furniture as looks change. But they don’t let go of the old. It is usually stored somewhere.”

Minimising is definitely not part of our South African customs, she explains, in fact we are conditioned to acquire possessions, rather than letting go. “It is only in recent years that we have been exposed to the thought of letting go and downsizing earlier rather than later or not at all,” Penny says.   

In her experience South Africans feel the need to leave their children their accumulated possessions and expect that they would want them. “South Africans are driven to leaving heirlooms, however inappropriate,” she reiterates.

Also, unlike the Swedes, she points out that many South Africans may have “bigger homes, bigger properties, garages and plenty of storage to contain all our stuff. We just don't see it, and as we acquire more, more is just stored away, rather than disposed of.”

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