What is Swedish Death Cleaning?

Published: 19/12/2022

The task of decluttering belongings after a loved one has passed can be a difficult one. Having to sort through their home where so many memories live and each corner filled with aspects of their life, can leave you feeling unsure where to begin. If you've ever thought about how your family will cope with this overwhelming process after you're gone, there is a solution that could help minimise the burden.   

Swedish author, Margareta Magnusson, has raised the idea of Swedish death cleaning, otherwise known as döstädning - 'dö' meaning death and 'städning' meaning cleaning. This concept from her book The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Free Yourself and Your Family From a Lifetime of Clutter involves decluttering and organising your belongings in preparation for the end of life. The idea behind death cleaning is to make things easier for you and those you love.   

Margareta Magnusson, author of 'The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Free Yourself and Your Family From a Lifetime of Clutter'. Credit: Stina Stjernkvist/TT News/PA
Margareta Magnusson, author of 'The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Free Yourself and Your Family From a Lifetime of Clutter'. Credit: Stina Stjernkvist/TT News/PA

Death cleaning originated in Sweden but has gained popularity all over the globe, with people taking many different approaches. Some people choose to dispose of their belongings themselves, while others seek professional help by an organiser. Some people focus on physical items such as clothes or photos, while others prioritise digital assets like accounts or files. No matter how you choose to approach the process of death cleaning, the goal is to take the burden off of your loved ones after you are gone.   

Magnusson attempts to destigmatise death in her book by stating, "we must all talk about death… death cleaning can be a way to start the conversation". Further adding, "getting rid of items can serve as a reminder that things don't last forever, including us." When you believe the time is right to begin decluttering, you can gradually take your time to appreciate your belongings and then appropriately dispose of them. A significant takeaway from Magnusson's book is that death cleaning need not be a sad process, but rather a rewarding one to reflect on each object and how it came into your life.   

By disposing of unwanted items and organising the remains, it allows your family to focus on grieving and remembering the life that has passed, rather than the overwhelming task of sorting through a cluttered home. Death cleaning also presents itself as an opportunity to reflect on your life and the legacy that you are leaving behind to your nearest and dearest, which can be a cathartic process.   

You can recognise what to discard using the following criteria:   

How much is too much?

You can significantly minimise clutter by identifying where you have an excess of items. An easy place to start this process is in your closet and kitchen, where you can seek to remove additional crockery or out-of-season items that do not serve you anymore. From here, Magnusson advises starting with large items that tend to be more impersonal, such as furniture, and finishing with the sentimental items, such as photographs, that may spark a feeling of nostalgia as you forage through and therefore take longer to evaluate their worth.   

What does this mean to me?

You should assess the value of your items to determine if you keep, donate or throw away. You can make this a meaningful experience by leaving items with those who will most appreciate them. Magnusson writes, "it is a delight to go through things and remember their worth", but you could set aside items that are only meaningful to you and perhaps not future generations in a box marked as 'throw away' to spare your family from having to sort through these items. 

The idea of minimalism implies that happiness does not come from things, but rather comes from our individual relationships and experiences. Therefore, as you remove the excess stuff that surrounds you, you can focus on those that bring the most happiness to your life. As Magnusson says, "life will become more pleasant and comfortable if we get rid of some of the abundance."  

By Eliza Lake

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