What Is Swedish Death Cleaning?

I am going to die. I mean at some point. And what will happen to all this crap I have accumulated? Who will deal with it? Well maybe I should go through the process of decluttering all of my stuff right now. And so should you.

Swedish death cleaning is a little bit morbid. The idea is that when people die they leave stuff. Lots of stuff. Reams and reams of it, piles and piles of it. And it’s friends and family that are left to deal with this stuff.

Enter Swedish Death Cleaning. The first time I heard the term, I thought it meant some kind of hardcore Scandinavian house-cleaning routine (they take a lot of things seriously there), where you scour your home from top to bottom to the point of physical collapse, as in “working yourself to the bone.” Well, I was wrong.

In Swedish, the word is “dostadning” and it refers to the act of slowly and steadily decluttering as the years go by, ideally beginning in your fifties (or at any point in life) and going until the day you kick the bucket. The ultimate purpose of death cleaning is to minimize the amount of stuff, especially meaningless clutter, that you leave behind for others to deal with.

Related: The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up

The Ulimate in Decluttering

I have long wanted to do an entire house cleaning and a major declutter. I have thought about getting a dumpster and going through everything and getting rid of 80% of my stuff. So Swedish death cleaning is right up my alley.

A woman by the name of Margareta Magnusson, who says she’s between 80 and 100, has written a book titled “The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to free yourself and your family from a lifetime of clutter.” She says she has moved house 17 times over the course of her lifetime, which is why “I should know what I am talking about when it comes to deciding what to keep and what to throw away”. Reviewer Hannah-Rose Yee, who practiced some Swedish death cleaning herself, describes it as being “like Marie Kondo, but with an added sense of the transience and futility of this mortal existence.”

Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning cover

Magnusson says that the first secret to effective death cleaning is to speak about it always. Tell others what you’re doing so they can hold you accountable. Yee writes: “If you vocalise it, it will come. Or something like that.” Pass on your belongings in order to spread the happy memories.

As Magnusson says, “you won’t be taking any of it with you, so why hold onto it now?

Related: How To Get Your House Decluttered This Weekend

The second key point is not to fear death cleaning:

“Death cleaning isn’t the story of death and its slow, ungainly inevitability. But rather the story of life, your life, the good memories and the bad. ‘The good ones you keep,’ Magnusson says. ‘The bad you expunge.'”

Finally, Magnusson encourages those engaging in Swedish death cleaning to reward their efforts with life-enhancing pleasures and activities, such as going to watch a movie, spending time in the garden, or eating an enjoyable meal. (Need I say no shopping?). Cleaning a cluttered house is an exercise in futility. So having a very decluttered home will make your life that much easier. It gives you time to enjoy life.

Outer order equals inner calm.

Who can possibly resist a decluttering philosophy with the name of ‘Swedish death cleaning’? Watch your friends’ eyebrows skyrocket when you pull this one out as an excuse for not wanting to go out next weekend. “Sorry, but I must engage in my Swedish death cleaning routine…”

Swedish Death Cleaning Tips

1. It’s not just for people over 50. Magnusson says every person should begin death cleaning after 50, but the idea can work for all ages—truly, the approach is helpful for anyone who wants to simplify and organize their life.

2. It should be a slow and ongoing process. This cleaning technique can’t be started and finished in a day, week, or month. It’s going to take time and should be seen as a lifestyle change—not a period of intense purging.

3. As you sort your home, you should think about your will, memorial service, and the inheritance you’ll leave behind, too. The experience should be comprehensive and practical, helping you to be prepared for the end of your life, allowing you—not others—to make the big decisions.

4. You should vocalize your intentions. Tell your friends and family about your plans, so they can hold you accountable. In the book, Magnusson stresses that this is a very important step.

5. Gift your unwanted items. When you drop by a friend’s house, skip the flowers or food, and bring them a few books you no longer want. Or, gift your grandchild with a treasured item you want him or her to have. Begin the process of giving away your items to people who could use them or may want them.

6. Start with your closet. It’s less emotionally taxing to get through, according to Magnusson. Begin there and perhaps you’ll feel motivated to tackle the attic.

7. It’s very therapeutic. Death cleaning isn’t about dying. It’s about looking back on your life and only keeping what’s important. Through the process, you’ll take stock of your many blessings, relive fond memories, and be able to archive your greatest treasures. It’s actually a pretty neat way to write your own narrative.

8. You should reward yourself, but not with more stuff. “Don’t forget yourself,” Magnusson writes. After you finish organizing an area or part of your life, treat yourself to a movie, manicure, or delicious meal–not a trip to your favorite store.

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