Don’t be put off by the morbid sounding name.
Swedish death cleaning is actually a life-affirming practice of decluttering material objects from your home so your loved ones don’t have to sort through all your stuff when you pass away.
Think about it. Sifting through a diseased family member’s lifetime of books, papers, clothing, collectibles and miscellaneous bric-a-brac is one of the most grueling responsibilities a mourning person can endure. Sure, they may pick out a few sentimental items to keep and perhaps a couple of valuable pieces, but to other people who no doubt have their own cluttered homes to deal with, the vast majority of your belongings will seem like junk to be donated or disposed of.
Wouldn’t you want to have a hand in the process of consciously prioritizing and downsizing your possessions rather than burdening someone else with all those micro-decisions?
The concept was popularized through Swedish author Margareta Magnusson’s book, The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Free Yourself and Your Family From a Lifetime of Clutter, that came out in 2017. She wrote it after both her parents and her husband passed away, and she was left with the onerous task of sifting through all their worldly things. She did so lovingly and dutifully, but she thought there has to be a better way.
Known as döstädning in Swedish, this practical, sensible process has taken the world by storm. It came out on the heals of two other international home-life philosophies.
One was the the Danish concept of hygge popularized in the book The Little Book of Hygge: Danish Secrets to Happy Living by Meik Wiking. With no easy translation into English, hygge (pronounced hue-guh) is essentially that feeling of contentment one gets when embraced by a warm, cozy home atmosphere.
The other was the bestselling phenomenon The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Japanese organizing consultant Mari Kondo. Her approach to minimalism was to sort and weed through your possessions and only keep items that “spark joy.”
All of these books were wildly successful and have developed a bit of a cult following. The three related concepts stem from a cultural shift away from material acquisitions being the hallmark of a well lived life. Simplifying and distilling your possessions down to those that are meaningful or practical frees your mental and physical space so you can focus on what’s really important and special to you. The Swedish cleaning philosophy adds the element of slowly and methodically getting your affairs in order to help your loved ones after you’re gone. This is not something you should only think of when you’re packing up to move to a senior living facility. It’s best to start this process before you’re too old or infirm to manage it. You, too, should relish in the freedom of a consciously decluttered home for years before it is absolutely necessary to downsize.
Some of the steps involved in Swedish death cleaning are as follows:
Edit Large Items First and Small Items Last
It’s easier to sift through larger objects and items than the smaller stuff. For instance, don’t start with photographs, letters or personal papers as you will no doubt get bogged down and distracted. The author says, “In general, when death cleaning, size really matters. Start with the large items in your home, and finish with the small.”
Declutter Regularly – and Wear an Apron
It doesn’t have to be an apron, but the idea is to bring a bag or have an apron with a pocket while you sort through and clean the house. When you see something that is displaced or you don’t need/want/use anymore, put it in the bag or pocket. It’s too easy to say you’ll get back to that later and then forget. Deal with it when you see it.
Let Your Friends and Family Know You’re Death Cleaning
When you tell your loved ones what you are up to, often they come to help you move larger items and maybe even select a few things they could use themselves. People like to take books, clothes, kitchen gadgets and the like if they know you are consciously downsizing. It’s a win-win proposition.
Make a Hard Copy of All Your Computer Passwords
This is a good tip for anyone in this digital age we’re as all drowning in passwords. Write them down in a little black book that is safely stored away, but is accessible for when you have passed. This makes wrapping up your accounts, subscriptions and the like so much easier on your loved ones.
Gift Your Belongings Away
Start a gradual and thoughtful process of passing on particular items to your friends and family. For example, if someone admires a vase or tablecloth while enjoying dinner at your home, consider gifting it to them. Give quality hand-me-downs as a hostess gift or housewarming present. It will bring pleasure to both of you to have the item be cherished rather than boxed up and thrown away when you die. As the author says, “To know something will be well used and have a new home is a joy.”
Keep a Box of Mementos Just for You
This isn’t a heartless pitching of all sentimental ephemera of your life while you’re still alive to enjoy them. By all means, keep a special box of old love letters, theater programs, travel souvenirs, ticket stubs or anything that makes you smile. Flip through it from time to time when you’re feeling nostalgic. Mark the box “throw away” so once your have passed, it can be disposed of. It may sound a little harsh, but none of that stuff will be meaningful to others so be prepared to let it go when you’re gone.
Donate or Sell the Rest
The point isn’t to force your unwanted belongings onto someone else, but to gift things that they have expressed an interest or need in having. Once you have done that, be prepared to have a garage sale or donate remaining items to charity. Of course, keep what you need, use and love while you’re still ticking, but know that the bulk of what is left over will be sent to an auction house or the dump after you’re gone. Don’t burden your loved ones with this hassle.
Throw Away Photos of People You Don’t Recognize
If you’re like most people of a certain age, you have amassed boxes and albums of old photos throughout the years. Eventually, there comes a point where you don’t recognize some of the faces or remember some of the places or events depicted in them. Your family probably doesn’t either, especially if you are one of the oldest surviving members left. Why keep them?
Appreciate Things Without Actually Buying Them
Just because you admire something doesn’t mean you need to own it. Train yourself to appreciate things without the need to actually purchase and possess them. “Look but don’t buy” is a good practice to cultivate in this consumer-driven world.