Death Cleaning

On September 16, 2016, I walked in to my mom’s hospital room to find her standing there in her hospital gown. Just standing there. She wasn’t on her way to the bathroom and she wasn’t heading back to bed, she was quite literally just standing there. She was not happy to be in the hospital and she wanted to go home.  

“What are you doing?” I asked her. As anyone would. 

“I’M PROTESTING,” she told me. 

“Oh. All right,” I said, and then we laughed and laughed. She remained standing because I guess the protest wasn’t over yet. I myself took a seat. She had no way of knowing it at the time, but she’d never see the inside of her house again. She died without ever going back there.  

My mom, by the end of her life, was only four feet, ten inches tall and maybe 95 pounds. She could be quite silly and funny at times. Other times, she was a tiny little fury of a person, irrational and angry and leaving no loved one unhurt.  She never understood her prognosis, which was: ten months if we’re lucky.  

We weren’t lucky. She got three. We cried. We cried more when our children cried. We had a funeral, we finished up paperwork, and when it was all said and done, we still had a job to do. Death Cleaning. 

Mom in her kitchen.


That same kitchen now.

It’s a real thing, Death Cleaning. From what I understand the Swedish came up with it, but for them it’s quite different than what my sister and I did. When the Swedish do Death Cleaning, they get rid of a lot of stuff while they’re still alive, as opposed to leaving it for someone else to do later, after they’re gone. It’s morbid and depressing but I still think it’s pretty brilliant. It’s the new Marie Kondo. I wish I could get my act together and do it in my own home, because clutter gives me heart palpitations and eliminating it would have to be so liberating. Soon. I promise. Very soon. 

In the meantime, there was Mom’s house. My mother’s main clutter was in the form of papers, tons and tons of papers. She kept everything, years worth of stuff, each document still folded and tucked into the business-sized envelope that it had arrived in. As for my dad, he kept everything else. Broken vacuum cleaners. Old eyeglasses missing an arm, and separately, the missing arms. Shortly after my mom’s death, my sister and I spent several days going through the house like vampires, laughing at some of the things we found and shaking our head at others, but ultimately sucking the life out of the place, one item at a time. It was devastating in a way that doesn’t seem too devastating at the time, but then you find yourself still thinking about it for months and probably years later. Our house. Their house. Our house. Ravaged as if by robbers, except we were the robbers. 

We never did clean it out entirely. I couldn’t imagine being there and watching a whole lifetime’s worth of possessions being tossed into a dumpster like so much garbage. So when I sold the house to some guys who were willing to take care of it for us, the relief was like a 40-pound concrete block no longer strapped to my back. They gutted the place before the closing even happened, renting dumpsters to get rid of everything we didn’t take. My mom’s books and makeup and stockpile of canned soup would have ended up in the dumpster, along with the furniture my parents had purchased new, back in the sixties. I guess the original green bathtub would have gone, as well as the note my mom had left for my dad when they still lived together: Ed – if you can’t wake me up, pick up the phone and press 9-1-1. Tell them you need an ambulance and give them this address. 

She wrote the address out for him, because by that time, he did not know it. I remember questioning her about that note. “Do you really think,” I said, “that if Daddy can’t wake you up, he’ll think to look around for instructions?” 

She shrugged. “Then I guess you girls should come over more,” she said. “To make sure he’s not living with a dead body.” 

Christmas, maybe 1979. My sister always took better photos than me.

I don’t think either my mom or dad would like how my sister and I handled their Death Cleaning. We were sentimental about plenty of things, sure. We took things, to remind us. But about plenty of other things – things which I’m sure one or both of my parents felt were nice or important or both – we said, Eh. Who needs it.  

And left it. 

I’ll go to see the house again, once the new owners have finished their renovations. I’m excited to see what it will look like, and I’m happy that someone is giving respect to the place. Treating it like it is worth something, like it’s more than just an empty shell that has seen better days. Like it’s a home. 

Because it was, and it is. I think, or anyway I hope, that my parents would be at least a little happy about that. 

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  1. Brilliant post. My sister and I did a bit of pre-death cleaning, at the encouragement of my dad a few weeks ago. I got two new coats for my efforts….my sister was more restrained and took nothing.
    We laughed and cried and laughed again as we tried on mum’s clothes, knowing she’d be shrieking with laughter if she could see us.
    I feel you pain, my friend through your honest, funny words.
    Sending love from across the pond xxx

    1. Two new coats! MAKES IT ALL WORTH IT, RIGHT? I myself got some bowls that I loved, my dad’s trumpet and a pretty nice LED lantern. Hashtag blessed 🙂
      I hope your mom is adjusting well to her new home, and the rest of you are adjusting as well. Love back to you… if I can convince my family to move to Denmark as I so desperately want to do, perhaps we’ll swing by for a visit. I’m not great at geography but I’m picturing Denmark as practically right next door to you. xo

  2. Oh goodness madness. My brother started the death cleaning before the funeral. He was the robber, I was the coveter. We fought hard, I even berated his wife for marrying a man who would ransack his dead mother’s house while she was still lying in a funeral home. Then, per her will, we invited close friends to take momentos while we drank champagne and popped Xanax. It wasn’t until I pulled away in a 26 foot uhaul full of her life that I accused my aunt,her sister, of poisoning her. She threw away some things very sneaky like and suspicious. I don’t think there is a script or most honorable way to empty decades of just do it and yes, ponder it for the rest of your life. You are a strong woman Miss, your mother would be proud and pleased to see 956 get a makeover.

    1. You always know what to say… and I should have used the word “ransack” in this post. Good one Jen. Also, note that in the Christmas photo, the gift I am showing off is FASHION PLATES.

  3. A man cleaning out his mother’s house after she passed in North Canton, OH, found a foot locker with baby human skeletal remains in it. After several months of testing, it came back that they were children of the mother, possibly twins. They have no idea how long ago they died. They’re not sure if they were stillborn.

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