The latest Scandinavian bandwagon that Americans are jumping on is known as Swedish Death Cleaning. Since the stereotype of the Nordic people tends more towards a house that looks like an IKEA showroom than an American college fraternity house, it makes sense that we look to them for advice on how to get - and then keep - things clean.
Imagine my surprise when I found out that Swedish Death Cleaning has no relationship to Swedish Death Metal (or, as it is sometimes known, and I love the oxymoronic nature of the title: Swedish Melodic Death Metal), and that knowledge of the genre is not a precondition for being able to dive into Swedish Death Cleaning. Although, I imagine that throwing things out to the death growls and aggressive guitar riffs of Opeth could be quite cathartic.
Be that as it may, my interest in Swedish Death Cleaning was not so much artistic as pragmatic. The second floor of Loyola Hall is being renovated this summer, and I needed to clean out my room. That phrase is pretty frightening to a guy who, even at sixty-three years of age, still shudders at the memory of Sr. Mary Raymond, S.I.W., turning over my desk, dumping the contents on the classroom floor, and telling me that I could go home when my desk was as clean as [fill in the name of one of the neat-desk students]’s desk.
I love a clean desk or room, but I’m not great with day-to-day maintenance. After forty-two years of “passable at best” cleanliness, I needed to pack everything up in boxes to be moved to the Main Building where my new classroom will be. Since we only had a finite number of boxes, I had to make some hard decisions about what to do with all of the “artifacts” that have filled Room 223 for lo these many years.
I began with quite a head of steam as the words of Margareta Magnusson, Swedish Death Cleaning guru, rang in my head: “Death cleaning is not about dusting or mopping up; it is about a permanent form of organization that makes your everyday life run more smoothly.” Folder after folder of Freshman Theology material, from tests and quizzes to notes and handouts, went into the recycling bin. The same for Sophomore (now Junior) Morality and all of the other non-Senior classes I taught.
Not only did I feel the burden of forty-two years of accumulation lifting from my shoulders, but I was reaping another benefit of Swedish Death Cleaning: the joy of taking a stroll down memory lane. As Ms. Magnusson writes, “It is a delight to go through things and remember their worth.”
I came across - and did not recycle - a number of notes written by former students, parents, and colleagues. Reading through them made me feel a bit like Mr. Chips, and several of them made me a bit misty - especially those from Mike Pennock and Jim Skerl. The same happened when I rediscovered drawings that had been done for “Daddy” by my children, Kevin and Mary Kate, when they were very young.
Despite the name, Swedish Death Cleaning is not meant to be depressing - quite the opposite. Its point is to save our loved ones from the difficulty of throwing out our stuff after we have died, and thus is an act of charity. In my case, I Swedish Death Cleaned because I had to move to a new classroom in a new building, but the benefits will be the same when the time comes for my new classroom to be cleaned out.
Every move is more than simply taking things from Point A to Point B. It is both a death and a rebirth, symbolizing the cycle of human life. The cleaning that accompanies it enables us to face death in a non-frightening and non-threatening way, but it also helps us to learn the important lesson of detachment from the things of this world - even, and maybe most especially, detachment from those things that seem to matter the most to us. Things like the name “Lessons from Loyola Hall.”