52 Ancestors: Handed Down

As the youngest of four boys, I’m well versed in the concept of hand-me-downs. However, I feel that this isn’t what Amy Johnson Crow had in mind when this week’s theme was laid out, so I won’t even mention the very 1970s brown polyester trousers with the Tom & Jerry patch that I sported for about a fortnight in the late 1980s…

I currently have few objects that have been handed down to me from my parents (my grandparents died when I was fairly young so I don’t have anything directly from them – except my middle name). One I do have is a cookery book that my great-grandmother, Edith, was given by her sister one Christmas. It’s very much of its time and there is lots of talk of broths and nutrition.

But I got to thinking about döstädning, as you do. You may or may not have heard of it, but it’s a Swedish term that translates to “death cleaning”, and relates directly to the process of sorting and dealing with the household effects of the elderly. Apparently it has been a ‘thing’ in Scandinavia for quite some time, but it was popularised elsewhere following the publication in 2017 of The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Free Yourself and Your Family from a Lifetime of Clutter (Döstädning: Ingen sorglig historia) by Margareta Magnusson. Who is also partial to a margarita.

It’s billed as a lifestyle in the same vein as hygge, rather than an exercise like KonMari and is about taking a fresh look at your belongings and deciding on the best way to pre-emptively declutter your home before The End. Sounds morbid to some people, but possibly only because in the modern Western world we are disassociated from death and there is an attitude of “don’t even think about it”. But it is the last great leveller. And that’s ok.

The relevance here, of course, is that döstädning forces one to examine what it is that is to be handed down to your (presumably) family. Obviously, for us as genealogists having something owned by your great-grandparents or some other relative is fantastic and can make us feel connected to that wonderful chain of events and people that have gone before us – and knowing that the object will be passed on again and be valued for its sentimental state as well as its intrinsic one is something that can also be enjoyed.

But that raises a couple of points. One: our collections need to be understood by our families. Who are these people in the albums? Who did the clock on the mantel belong to? Collecting is meaningless if there is no sharing. Two: our collections needs to be in a state of preparedness to be passed over. If I died tomorrow, what would happen to my research? Who could access it? Would they understand it?

Of course, some of that question of what goes to whom can be covered by producing detailed wills. Photographs, documents, letters can be labelled and displayed in albums, organised and clearly marked. (Paul Chiddicks did a wonderful feature about organising your family history back at the beginning of this annus horribilis).

But there is a wider question that we need to ask ourselves: just because I think it has value (sentimental or otherwise), will the recipient honour that, or even want the item? And – most importantly – what if nobody in my family wants it? Just because I value great-grandmother’s clock, will any of my siblings, cousins, nephews, nieces or beyond? And what if they don’t?

I’m not offering any answers to these questions, but as genealogists – as self-appointed keepers of our family’s treasures – we need to have conversations with our family, and ourselves, to understand what happens after we’re gone. After all, there’s little point in decluttering one house only to clutter some other.

Perhaps it’s because I, as a gay genealogist, have no children to leave things to (that’s from personal choice, incidentally, as I am aware that you can be a straight genealogist and also have no children!). But its something that we all need to consider and not leave to assumptions and that awful word ‘ought’.

Of course, the other bonus of döstädning is that one has more time to enjoy the good things. So throw away the polyester trousers, organise your family photos and enjoy that margarita.

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