Swedish Death Cleaning & Stuff

Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time


On various occasions along life’s journey I have collected a great many things, things of some inherent value, although perhaps they have value only to me. I have collected high school yearbooks for the years I was a teacher, religious medals and holy cards from various places and church celebrations over the years, DVDs and CDs that I no longer watch or listen to, travel books and city maps and plane boarding passes and airline playing cards and enamel trading pins and theater tickets and books. O many, many books. The house is full of books, most of which I bought and have read just once, and others that I have never read at all. But they’re on my shelves and they’re piled on tabletops. Now many things other people collected were of no interest to me in the least, like postage stamps and baseball cards and Disney memorabilia and salt and pepper shakers. I guess to each his own. Instead I collected pendant crosses and hats with brims and handmade stoneware pitchers. Don’t ask me why.

At the time there may have been good reason to collect some of these things, although I may no longer remember what those reasons were. I have a box of old cables and electric cords, earphones and outdated electronic gadgets, keys to locks I won’t be able to identify, pens that have long since dried up, blank books that I still plan to use for sketching and writing songs and stories. Now that a lot of things have gone digital, my collection of over 50 000 photos lives in the cloud with a bunch of music and movies, my homilies from the past 20 years, and every email I’ve sent and received since I came to Waynesboro. Again, don’t ask me why. Some of these things I still have somewhere in the house, but I won’t know where to begin looking if the Smithsonian wanted any of it for their special collections.

Although we surround ourselves with many things we consider of value, there are also a great many things that surround us that we wouldn’t miss if we never ever saw them again. That’s why it’s never easy to downsize. But it’s something we have to do at some point, and probably more than just once. That means we would have to determine which things have any real value to us and which things have little or none.

In 2017 Margareta Magnusson published “The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning.” She believed that most people spend the first half of their lives collecting things and the second half giving them away. Or at least that’s what she suggested we do if we want to be remembered fondly by those who have to clean up after us. She acknowledged it was entirely natural to own and collect things we deem essential for life and work, but there comes a time when we seriously need to consider the impact of our departure from this planet on the people who will outlive us. Those things that we no longer need we should get to others who can still use them. Those things that we can’t sell or give away we will need to donate or discard. Whatever is left should fit in a shoebox that we can entrust to someone reliable to burn or bury. Eventually, our idea of what is of real importance will migrate from tangible objects to intangible realities. When that happens and how it happens is entirely up to us.

Jesus shows us four possible ways that things and realities of true importance come into our lives. Sometimes we stumble upon them like the traveler who finds a treasure in a field completely by accident. Sometimes we actively search for them like the merchant searching for fine pearls. In each case, these individuals immediately acknowledge the value of the treasure they find and willingly rid themselves of all things of lesser value in their pursuit of this treasure. Sometimes we casually cast a large net wide, haul in a great assortment of things, and have to sort through the mess to find what may be of use or value. That is actually a great image of what we do all our lives learning from experience, pondering, comparing, appraising, gaining wisdom for our own use or to pass on to others. And sometimes we discover things and realities of true importance already in our possession that we may not have recognized sooner, like pieces of furniture stored in the attic or basement we never quite paid attention to, but whose value influences our thinking and behavior from that moment on.

In similar fashion Jesus invites us to recognize the true value and importance of the Kingdom of God. We have been told about it in the scriptures for many generations, but this Kingdom of God still fails to hold the same place of excellence and significance for everyone. Now some families raise their children in a highly focused environment that places great value on industry and integrity and love for God and everyone and all creation. Their parents and teachers may have known exactly what they were doing. So the children naturally build on this system of values given them that ultimately guides and governs their thinking and behavior. It seemed Solomon started out on the right road, thanks to those who raised him. Would that we all were raised that way.

Instead, we discover the value and importance of faith and God’s gracious role in our lives more like the people in Jesus’ parable. Some of us may have had the fortune of being raised by truly awesome, faithful, loving, respectable, and exemplary parents and teachers. Whether or when we recognized the value and importance of these treasures might be a different story, which then unfold in the way we reason and the choices we make. We are sometimes challenged to put our money where our mouth is. But whether we intend it or not, we already have, and it is out there for all to see.

At various stages along the journey we find ourselves sorting through a lot of what we own, deciding what to keep and what to let go, and organizing a yard sale. It’s exactly what Margareta Magnusson refers to in her book on Swedish Death Cleaning, but not as dark as it sounds. But Swedish Death Cleaning looks like the flip side of today’s gospel message. The more important question is not what you’ve decided to put up for sale, but rather what you’ve decided to keep.

Years ago the estate of Jackie & John F. Kennedy put up for auction an enviably glorious trove of earthly possessions from that bygone age of Camelot. A priest friend of mine got his hands on a catalog from Sotheby’s. And as he browsed those pages he would annoyingly “ooh” and “ahh” at the fine display of furniture and dinnerware and art associated with that golden age that some people may be willing to pay a handsome price for. And he turned to me and wondered, “What do you imagine they’re keeping?” My mind went blank. I suppose they were keeping some things. And he says, “That would be even better stuff.” So when you’re doing some death cleaning and organizing your yard sale, I hope you hang on to the better stuff. The rest is really just stuff.

Rolo B Castillo © 2020