In preparing for the end, ‘death cleaning’ is one of the kindest things we can do for our loved ones

Apr 11, 2024 | 0 comments

By Helen Coffey

It wasn’t eavesdropping, exactly. It’s just impossible not to listen to someone’s very personal conversation when you’re sitting in a sauna together.

The two women were talking about death – or, rather, preparing for death – openly, calmly and without melodrama or heightened emotion. One of them was explaining why she had spent time ensuring her affairs were in order. “When Max died, he hadn’t sorted any of it out – not his will, not anything.” As the conversation progressed, it became clear that all the worldly goods of this woman’s former long-term partner had gone to his estranged wife, with whom he hadn’t spoken in 40 years. The house, the savings, the pension pot – everything.

You can take it with you.

“They’d never bothered to get a divorce,” she said. “I didn’t mind so much for me. But his assets really should have gone to his kids.”

This woman seemed remarkably sanguine about this state of affairs, exuding the kind of deeply zen acceptance people spend a lifetime reading self-help manuals trying to achieve. She’d moved on, but not before learning the hard way that facing the inevitability of our demise and planning accordingly isn’t morbid. It’s the kindest thing we can do to ensure we don’t land our loved ones with an almighty mess. As a result, she now had a fully updated will and other legal documents, plus an explicit list of her funeral wishes.

It was as far from expected day-spa chat as you can get. But the more these women talked, the more I realised what a healthy and refreshing attitude they had. It got me thinking about how the unwillingness many of us have when it comes to preparing for death in any way – financially, practically, emotionally – is steeped in a deep-rooted denial.

I’m as bad as anyone. Like 62 per cent of Britons, according to research from bereavement charity Sue Ryder, I currently don’t have a will. This wouldn’t have mattered so much previously but I’m now a homeowner. More than that, I don’t want to saddle my family with endless decisions about what I would want them to keep as meaningful mementos and what I would want them to take directly to the tip.

“Time and again I’ve seen family feuds caused by people not leaving a will,” Kristie Scott, founder and director of the Death Planner, tells me. “It can be over silly things, not even money – someone says, ‘I want Dad’s watch’, but so does their brother or sister. You get siblings fighting over sentimental things. Whereas, if someone’s left clear instructions, even if you disagree with the decision, you can come to terms with it because you know that’s what they wanted.”

Previously a funeral director, Scott started her business, which encompasses all areas of estate planning, after seeing the devastating impact of Covid-19. People of all ages were dying unexpectedly – and a huge number had left no clue about their wishes. “I found it really upsetting; all these families were dealing with loss but the fact they also didn’t know what their loved ones would have wanted was causing extra grief. While the dead person will never know whether you decided right or wrong, the pressure adds to the grief – they worried they were doing their loved ones an injustice.”

Historically, in the UK we’ve been uncomfortable with the subject of death, with some people hanging onto the superstition that talking about it will make it happen. “People shy away from using the word ‘death’, even,” says Scott. “There are all these euphemisms: they’ve ‘passed away’, they’ve ‘stepped into the next room’. We need to start using the correct terminology.”

However, post-Covid, “a shift” is starting to take place, says Sam Grice, CEO and founder of Octopus Legacy. Over half of people (56 per cent) have spoken to their loved ones about their death according to Sue Ryder research, compared to just 30 per cent in May 2019.

“Starting a conversation about what will happen when we die can be scary, in the way that all important conversations are – whether that’s deciding to have children, getting married, changing jobs… But these conversations do have the power to connect us,” says Grice. “I think we’re a lot better at talking about death than we think – we’re just bad at diving in.”

The reason “diving in” is essential is that the alternative can create very painful situations when you die – particularly if you have children. “Say you died tomorrow: social services then have a duty of care if you haven’t officially nominated a preferred legal guardian,” warns Scott. “Your kids would be taken into care for a few weeks – the thought of that straight after losing their parents is just horrific.”

Grice experienced at first hand the heartbreak of losing a loved one who hadn’t made adequate preparations ahead of time – hence his decision to set up Octopus Legacy. “In 2016 my mum died suddenly in a car accident,” he says. “Like lots of us, she didn’t have a plan in place – no will, no funeral wishes, no list of accounts or passwords, no lasting power of attorney. Nothing.

“It made the days, weeks and months that followed even harder than they would have been otherwise. In that time, we struggled to know how to do Mum justice at her funeral, worrying if we’d got it right, we sat for hours on hold with different companies trying to track down her different accounts, we spent months wrapping up various complex legal processes. It was the last thing we wanted to be worrying about while grieving Mum.”

Stories like this are perhaps why the Swedish practice of “death cleaning” has gained traction over the last couple of years. Known as Döstädning, it involves having a regular declutter, paring things down to the essentials, to ensure that when you die, your executors won’t have to deal with reams of rubbish. The concept was popularised by the New York Times best-selling book The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning by Margareta Magnusson, which was adapted into a reality TV show produced by Amy Poehler in 2023.

“Some people can’t wrap their heads around death,” Magnusson wrote in her book. “And these people leave a mess after them. Did they think they were immortal?”

Although Döstädning is more concerned with the act of purging unnecessary material items, the idea goes hand in hand with getting your affairs in order. The number one priority is to make a will, even if you don’t think of yourself as having “assets”. “A will makes it much easier for your family or friends to sort everything out when you die – without a will, the process can be more time-consuming and stressful,” says a Sue Ryder spokesperson. “Without one, all your possessions will be shared out in a standard way defined by the law.” People you’d like to leave something to – such as a partner you’re not married to – could end up with nothing.

A will is the place where you make those important decisions. Who do you want to inherit your assets (home, valuables, savings, etc)? Who looks after your children (if they’re under 18)? What happens to your special items? Do you want to include a gift to the charities and causes you love? And who do you trust to carry out your wishes as your executor?

Making a will also saves your loved ones’ money – dying without one costs £9,700. Scott calls it a “fluid” document and recommends revisiting it regularly. “People don’t realise they need to look at it every four or five years,” she says. “But you need to check – have any of the executors died, have you had a baby, received an inheritance, got divorced? I work with people who wrote their will 20 years ago – and it’s now completely irrelevant.”

Other things to consider include setting up life insurance if you have financial dependents, nominating a lasting power of attorney (someone you trust to make decisions on your behalf if you’re no longer able to) and choosing a beneficiary for your pensions. Logging your “digital estate” is also fundamental, stresses Scott. This means ensuring someone can access your passwords upon your death – they’ll be able to cancel regular subscriptions, decide whether to shut down or memorialise your social media accounts, and save your photos and videos from disappearing into the virtual ether. “There’s nothing worse than someone dying and their name popping up all over Facebook as if they’re still alive,” she says.

But there are other, more sentimental, elements worth reflecting on too. “With specific items you want to leave to people, you can make notes,” suggests Scott. “Write down where things came from, and why they’re important to you. Often when we inherit something, we don’t know what the significance was or what it meant to the person.”

Sue Ryder recommends sharing your funeral wishes. Do you want a burial or cremation? A religious or non-religious service? Is there a location preference? Do you have specific requests for the service? (Maybe you want to insist all attendees wear bright colours instead of black, or that your coffin gets carried into the strains of “I Will Survive” – it will only happen if people know your wishes ahead of time.)

You could also share your favourite recipes, curate the playlist of your life so far and record voice notes or videos, says Grice. “Death cleaning can be an opportunity to create a plan for more than just your assets. Why not think about leaving behind the things that really matter, and making your death cleaning personal to you?”

You could have a day once every year or two where you make sure everything’s up to date. You could do it little by little. The bottom line is to “just get it done”, says Scott. “Something’s better than nothing.”

It’s always too soon, until it’s too late, as her business tagline runs. “You always think you’ve got time – death planning gets put to the bottom of the list, mainly because people don’t think they’re going to die,” she says. “But spoiler alert: we all die in the end.”

If nothing’s guaranteed in this life except death and taxes, surely the kindest thing we can do is get prepared.

Credit: The Independent


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