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The Case for Swedish Death Cleaning

A bestselling book argues for a new approach to decluttering


Although I’ve never visited Sweden, I find myself attracted to simple, clean-lined architecture and furniture. I love Swedish pop music. And herring. Plus, I live in Minnesota, with our cold but beautiful winters where I (a short brunette) am surrounded by tall blonde people.

It’s no surprise to me that I would also be drawn to another Swedish import of a darker nature: Swedish death cleaning.

Swedish death cleaning, or döstädning, is the premise of a recent best-selling book, The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Free Yourself and Your Family from a Lifetime of Clutter, by Margareta Magnusson — a Swedish artist and author who is “between 80 and 100,” and quite charmingly reflective about her life and the things surrounding her.

Specifically, she tells her adult son in a phone call, she feels it is time for her to death clean — to rid her house of nearly all of the clothes, furniture, dishes, art, photos and keepsakes that her family will not want to clean up when she is dead. (I love imagining this call and her son’s bewildered expression.)

We have written extensively about decluttering your home on NextAvenue.org, including a four-part series reviewing the latest organizing techniques with special attention on Marie Kondo’s hit book, The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up. One of the most-read stories we’ve ever published was titled “Sorry, Nobody Wants Your Parents’ Stuff.” That article delved into the sad truth that boomers’ parents are leaving behind decades of “stuff” that is worth far less than they hoped and challenging to sell or donate.

Magnusson seems to come in right at the center of these two narratives with a very charming cadence and to-the-point message. Her bottom line: “Someone will have to clean up after you. Whoever it may be will find it a burden.”

It turns out that death cleaning isn’t so different from any other kind of serious decluttering projects: organize items into piles, label items to give to others or charity, learn whether certain items are worth something, create a small “throw away” box with keepsakes that are only precious to you but worth nothing to those you leave behind. And simply (similar to Kondo’s advice to purge anything that doesn’t “spark joy”): “If you don’t like something, get rid of it.”

When it comes to a death cleanse, the “how” is not important. Rather, it’s that Scandinavian persistence that it simply be done. And that persistence is necessary because going through your belongings — especially the meaningful ones — can be very difficult. The author’s own experience of getting lost in the memories while reading old letters shows exactly how time-consuming and emotional death cleaning is.

But think of the rewards for your loved ones. Magnusson evokes her Viking ancestors’ ritual of burying objects together with their dead family and friends to assure the dead wouldn’t miss anything in the next life and their survivors would “not become obsessed with the spirits of the dead and constantly be reminded of them because their possessions were still scattered all over the tent or mud hut.” Your stuff may literally haunt your family when you’re gone.

Her call to action is universal. Do you have to be 80+ to embark upon your first round of death cleaning? No. You may be decades younger and not yet thinking regularly about your demise, but saddled with closets and drawers bursting with items that mean little to you. Death cleaning is for all of us.

Bonus: Your uncluttered, simplified life will bring you pleasure. Put on a little ABBA in the background while you clean and you’ll really feel it.

By Shayla Thiel Stern
Shayla leads the editorial team and content strategy as the Director of Editorial and Content for Next Avenue at Twin Cities PBS. She has spent a career in digital media journalism and digital strategy at organizations including washingtonpost.comEdmunds.comCars.com and Fast Horse, and worked as a consultant for several years. She also was a media professor at the University of Minnesota and DePaul University and  has a Ph.D. in Mass Communication. She can be reached at [email protected].@shayla_stern

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