When Clutter Kills: Man Trapped By His Own Pile Of Junk And Dies

It is true there are various degrees of hoarding. Some may have a shoe fettish with a closet big enough to make Imelda Marcos jealous. Others may hoard parts and scraps and fill entire warehouses with their junk. But it is a serious sign of trouble when you have so much stuff in your home that you have to burrow tunnels through it to make your way from room to room.

That’s exactly what one U.K. man did for over ten years. Gordon Stewart, 74, was found dead in his home last Friday after apparently becoming lost in his own maze of junk and died of dehydration. Without knowing more about Mr. Gordon, other than what is told in the original story at The Sun, it is hard to know why Gordon accumulated stuff with such intensity. It is not clear what his motivations were–environmental, economic, or just plain eccentric. Either way, it was a sad end.

What Motivates People To Become Hoarders?

For some, hoarding is the symptom of some deeper psychological problem such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, or depression. Others turn to hoarding because of an anxiety that things may be needed in the future, but when the time comes they will lack the financial resources to acquire them. And then there are those who have deep sentimental attachment to things and simply can’t bear to part with them.

Aside from the extreme example of Mr. Gordon’s demise, there are plenty of other health reasons to avoid hoarding. Obviously, there are physical dangers including trips and falls, particularly dangerous to the elderly. There are more hidden dangers such as mildew, dust and rodent infestations to contend with.

A Fine Line Between Stockpiling and Hoarding

For a brief time I was enamored with coupon clipping and stockpiling. I even joined a site called GroceryGame.com where people participated in forums to show off their impressive stockpiles of 37 tubes of Crest toothpaste, 12 boxes of Cheez-Its, etc. I was impressed, and thought the idea of stockpiling household sale items, particularly things like cleaners, non-perishables and toiletries, made a lot of sense. After all, these were the days when food inflation was the scare of the season. I thought stocking up now would save us from spending more money for the same item down the line.

What I discovered was that the line between stockpiling and hoarding blurs pretty quickly. After all, how many $1.49 toilet bowl cleaners does one family really need? I dedicated an entire shelving unit in our garage to our stockpile, and soon it was taking over an adjacent shelf.

Inside the house we used two metal racks to hold our food finds, but we were never good at rotating stock and lost a few items to expiration. We concluded that the mental energy required to manage all this stuff was not worth the cost savings to acquire it. In the future if we needed a can of cream of mushroom soup we would go buy one (or two or three–still good to have a backup of some things). If we happen to have a coupon and can save a little extra, great. If not, we don’t sweat it. We control our stuff, and we don’t let it control us.


  1. For myself, I couldn’t disagree more with the stockpiling, but that’s just my situation. I can vegetables, fruits, jams, meat, fish and anything else that will hold still long enough for me to can it! 🙂 I am dedicated to using good quality ingredients, so when I find olive oil on sale at my local salvage store, I buy over ten at a time. I only stockpile utilitarian things like food, fishing supplies, and canning supplies. As far as keeping things rotated, I am pretty good about moving stuff around on the shelves, but I have the luxury of a large pantry.
    It’s tragic when people let stuff take over their lives. I think that when you said that it wasn’t worth the energy required to maintain it, you hit an important point. If your stuff is a drain and not a joy, it’s time for it to go. Folks need to remember they are not their stuff.

  2. That is so sad. I wonder if his family knew the extent of his problem.

    I feel bad for him and for his family. They are going to have to go through all the clutter.

  3. Such a sad story. I’m curious about what motivated this poor man to do this. I come from a long line of pack-rats and I understand how easily this can become a problem. For my family it was the “just in case I need it for something someday” syndrome. The thing is, most of the time that day doesn’t come for most things. Taking time to evaluate and re-evaluate my use of storage space has to be a part of my regular tasks now. Having moved as many times as we have, you come to realize how fast things can accumulate (even good things) in a hurry.

    No matter how good of a deal I may have gotten on something, if I don’t use it up before it expires then I’ve wasted my money anyway. If I’m paying for a larger storage space, larger home, etc. just to accommodate my stored things, I’m losing the money I thought I was saving.

    My rule of thumb now is this..Anything that is not a family photograph, document or irreplaceable is expendable. With my pack-rat tendencies I have to take time to work through all of my storage space regularly and take the items straight to Goodwill or another charity. I can’t wait for garage sales or anything, because they don’t work for me and encourage hanging on to stuff long enough to make it worth holding the sale. Freecycle has been a huge help too!

  4. Obviously the man in the story had reached the point of mental illness — filling your house with rotting, stinking trash is beyond reasonably saving things just in case you need them.

    There is a certain method to find out if the thing you are thinking you might need one day will be needed one day — throw it in the trash!

    Much more often than not, you’ll never need it again. As you mention, it save you mental energy to get rid of things. It prevents you from ever having to think about the item again. If you decide to save something, you will likely reevaluate it several more times when cleaning or moving.

  5. Wow. Death by junk mail.

    During a conversation yesterday about apartment clutter, I realized there are some boxes and material goods I haven’t touched since I moved-in 16 months ago. Maybe it’s time to either put into storage or give away.

  6. True hoarding is a mental illness. It stems from an inability to determine that something of no value is actually of no value.

    Simply cleaning out a legitimate hoarder’s home, without addressing the mental problem will result in more stress and strife for the hoarder than necessary.

  7. I can’t decide if being a packrat is genetic or learned behavior. My husband and I grew up in poverty situations, and were poor as young adults. Not that we’re rich now, but we don’t really NEED to save every mayonnaise jar with a wide lid just because it washes easily. We have relatives before us that did the same thing. Then there’s our youngest son, who is frustrated to no end with our hoarding tendencies. However, he didn’t grow up poverty stricken. Another thing is our parents (my husband’s and mine) would routinely go through our things and get rid of them and throw them away – which we never did that to our children since we don’t get rid of much. LOL. Ironically, our son has gone through our stuff and thrown things away on a cleaning spree!! Good stuff, that’s worth something! You know, like VCR movies! 😉

  8. Just as we should have an Emergency Fund for our money, we need to have food stored for emergencies too. The *emergency* doesn’t have to be an natural disaster such as a hurricane or an earthquake–it can be used for months when the budget’s tight, or if the wage-earner loses their job or has to go on disability. The motto is: Store what you eat, and eat what you store!….Rotating the food is important, and also replenishing that which you’ve used during your particular *emergency*. I didn’t see the show the other day, but I heard that Suze Orman was on Oprah and said we should now have EIGHT MONTHS income saved up for emergencies–or the amount of money it costs you to survive for 1 month X’s 8. It’s a good idea to have a year’s supply of food on hand, but you can build up to that: start with 2 weeks, 1 month, 3 months, 6 months and so on. Just my 2 cents!

  9. That is a sad story. I can`t imagen my kids letting me build things up to the point where I couldn`t walk through lol but I of course don`t know thier side of the story!
    Your story triggered a memory where I had stockpiled shampoo. I had lived right next to a CVS store and was a shampoo rebate queen! My boyfriend at the time finally suggested I had bought enough after 15 bottles of shampoo lol
    This all stemmed from not haveing enough beauty supplies earlier in my life so I bought and bought.
    Those shampoos lasted a couple of years!

  10. You’re right – is IS a fine line. Not everyone who uses grocery game and coupons has a dedicated room to stockpile or 37 tubes of toothpaste. The point is to buy only what you need, but for the lowest possible price.

  11. I do the twenty seven things game. each month i divest myself of 27 items. I sell, redistribute or donate things in my environment. It’s a great alternative to spending money and a wonderful project for a rainy weekend. I like FD’s commnet about mental energy. As one who shops sales and clips coupons, sometimes I find myself spending way too much time to save a nickel. Everyone has to decide what is right and what works for them.

  12. I think some hoarding is a generational thing that may have been passed down. My grandma was a hoarder; she lived through the great depression and the dust bowl and came to california with nothing. I think those experiences made it hard for her to ever get rid of things. she also passed it on to my aunt.

    My wife and go through our house every 6 months and get rid of whatever we can. Clothes especially. If i don’t wear it anymore it goes to good will and we take the tax deductions. It helps reduce the clutter and forces you analyze your life and possessions.

  13. This type of hoarding is a mental illness and cannot be dealt with through conventional methods. It has about as much to do with clutter as a headache has to do with a brain tumor. All of the techniques described by the commenters, while helpful to your basic packrat, wouldn’t have helped this guy a bit.