What Is Swedish Death Cleaning (and Why Should You Be Doing It)?

My mom was a hoarder. Not in the same league as the people featured on Buried Alive (thankfully), but certainly enough for it to be noticeable. She had clothes dating back the mid-seventies that no longer fit her, kitchen appliances she hadn’t used in decades, piles of unopened tea towels, the list goes on.

Even before I adopted a minimalist lifestyle, a visit to my parents would invariably leave me feeling overwhelmed. There was just so much stuff. Every once in awhile I’d try to convince mom to declutter a little, but she always had a reason not to.

Related: Declutter Now, So Your Kids Don’t Have To

As the years went by and my parents got progressively older and more infirm, I tried to persuade them to sell their large family home and move into something more suitable for just the two of them. They weren’t interested. Like a lot of elderly folks, change of any kind was just too daunting to consider.

When they finally did move into an old age home, I was left to clean out their house on my own. The task was physically taxing and time-consuming, but it was the emotional aspect that hit hardest. Being responsible for someone else’s memories is a tough ask.

The Gentle Art of Swedish Cleaning

swedish death cleaning

In her book, The Gentle Art of Swedish Cleaning, author and artist Margareta Magnusson encourages us to clean like there’s no tomorrow. Because, well, there might not be. Nobody likes to think about dying, but perhaps it’s time we did.

In Sweden there is a kind of decluttering called döstädning meaning ‘death’ and städning meaning ‘cleaning.’ This process of getting rid of unnecessary belongings can be done at any age, you don’t have to wait until you’re old. However, the sooner you do it, the better.

The idea is to avoid having others do the job for you after you’ve gone. It may sound like a heavy topic, but Magnusson uses humor and wisdom to get her ideas across. Equal parts radical and joyous in her approach, she introduces an element of fun to a potentially daunting task.

She suggests which possessions you can easily get rid of (unworn clothes, unwanted presents, more plates than you’d ever use) and which you might want to keep (photographs, love letters, a few of your children’s art projects).

Margareta’s method for putting things in order helps families broach sensitive conversations, makes the process uplifting rather than overwhelming and helps one become more comfortable with the idea of letting go.

The Benefits of Decluttering Sooner Rather Than Later

swedish death cleaning

Magnusson —who is somewhere between 80 and 100-years-old— is no stranger to döstädning in her own life. Along with cleaning out the homes of various family members and friends after they died, she’s also had to declutter her own house following the death of her husband.

The benefits of Swedish death cleaning far outweigh the hardship of knuckling down and doing it. It could make you happier, you’ll probably feel less stressed and overwhelmed, you’ll be more productive and it may even help you better cope with the reality of your own mortality.

But while decluttering now means good stuff for you, there’s also the not insignificant fact that your family won’t be left with the job after you’ve shuffled off. As Margareta says, “It’s about doing a favor for those who survive you, too.”

In the end, cleaning out my parents house didn’t take that long, but I didn’t do a great job. First there was the pressure of time constraints —I needed to get back to work. And second, I was feeling annoyed and resentful, which meant I wasn’t quite as discerning as I could have been.

I’m not proud of my efforts, but I did the best I could at the time. Given a do-over, things would probably turn out a lot better. But then, hindsight is always going to be twenty-twenty, right? Maybe you can learn from my experience and declutter now, so your family isn’t left with the job after you’re gone.

Related:
Declutter to De-Stress and Organize
11 Things to Declutter From Your Yard
How Going Zero Waste Made Me a Better Person

Photo Credit: Thinkstock

81 comments

Anne F
Anne F3 days ago

interesting. Yes, we can have less stuff around

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Sophie M
Sophie M5 days ago

thanks for sharing

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mac C
mac C5 days ago

Good thing to do. Thank you!

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Ingrid H
Ingrid H12 days ago

Thank you

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One Heart i
One Heart inc16 days ago

Thanks!!!
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cABVKIPk_u0

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Anne F
Anne F16 days ago

Always glad to read of an intriguing approach: I'd like to have fewer stacks of what I think I might do around me.

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John N
John N19 days ago

I live in a small flat. Over the years, I have accumulated, literally, piles of stuff. I retired last week. So I definitely have something to do. Decorating, cleaning, tidying as well as decluttering. I am doing myself a favour. I will be able to find things. I will have more room. I'll enjoy life. It will also be easier to clear the flat if I move into a care home. It's like making a will, or paying for a funeral before I go. It shows some consideration for others.

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Kathryn I
Kathryn I20 days ago

It would be a dream-come-true to lead a minimalist lifestyle by living in one of those tiny houses, which are become more prevalent!

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Sharon B
Sharon B22 days ago

thanks

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Rosemary H
Rosemary H24 days ago

There's also such a thing as intelligent hoarding, so long as you know where things arfe. On one hand, it means my home is always full of interest; on the other it saves me a lot of money replacing stuff I'd thrown out...

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