Swedish Death Cleaning explained: The trendy art of letting go
Swedish Death Cleaning isn’t as scary as it sounds
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By now, most people are familiar with hygge, the Scandinavian design philosophy that embraces coziness and comfort.
But organization experts say we would be remiss to overlook the teachings of Margareta Magnusson, whose tome for the home—“The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning”—isn’t nearly as morose as it sounds.
“Magnusson isn't afraid to share the truths that we shy away from—where your stuff's going to go once you're gone,” says professional organizer Melissa Corriveau of Life With Less Mess. “But her tone throughout the book is gentle and humorous, and it’s a quick read.”
So what the heck is Swedish Death Cleaning? Let’s ask the professionals.
What is Swedish Death Cleaning?
“Swedish Death Cleaning is a way of life and, just like with Marie Kondo’s approach, this practice is highly cultural,” shares organization and productivity coach Caroline Gunter, CEO of The Swedish Organizer.
Gunter’s family’s roots are Scandinavian and her first language was Swedish, so this book—and subject—are near and dear to her heart, she says. “Many Swedes consider the first half of their life as an opportunity to accumulate wealth, knowledge, and assets; and the second half of their life as a way to disperse that value properly—to the right places and people.”
In Swedish culture, it’s considered rude to impose inconvenience—like decluttering—on others, she advises. “When you are gone, your memory should be the only thing left,” Gunter says of Magnusson’s teachings.
Simply put, “The approach behind ‘The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning’ is more decluttering and letting go than organizing,” says Corriveau. “You can’t take it with you.”
Why the approach is especially good for seniors
“While Swedish Death Cleaning can be done at any point in one's life, it has a special meaning for older adults who have raised their families and lived most of their lives. It's a great way to relive special times and events. Even the contents of the most mundane box may bring up simple, special memories,” says Corriveau. “It's calming and even therapeutic to revisit all the items in your home, enjoy the memories they evoke, and then send them off to be loved and enjoyed by someone else,” whether “someone else” is a family member or charitable organization.
Gunter often recommends these sorting bins for moving and donating items.
Why the best inheritance is little inheritance
Corriveau says one of the most impactful sentences in Magnusson’s book is: "A loved one wishes to inherit nice things from you. Not all things from you."
“At the end of your life, you want your loved ones to be focusing on your life and your memories instead of cleaning up your mess,” Corriveau says. “Think about what you're leaving behind—that will become the last memory your loved ones have of you. If the state of your home is unpleasant, overwhelming, and you've got embarrassing items in your drawers, that’s what they will remember you for.”
Unstuffing drawers, closets, and storage units removes an element of emotional burden from those whom seniors leave behind, says Gunter, whose parents are currently streamlining their home using Magnusson’s methods. “It’s a big relief for me. I would rather not have to clean out their estate later in life. Anyone who has gone through that process knows how emotionally draining it is; it’s a big job that’s best done by the person who is responsible for accumulating everything.”
Gunter recommends grabber tools as seniors reach for items to sort them, to reduce strain or unnecessary movements.
How to start the Swedish Death Cleaning method
“It’s best to start with the one thing that really matters: your family history and photo collection,” says Gunter, who is a certified photo organizer. “It’s never too early to tell the stories of your life. I see problems all the time with people putting this off for too long because it’s ‘too emotional’ or ‘too complex.’ As people age, memories fade,” she says, of sharing a family’s legacy. “Productivity also dictates that you start with the most difficult task while you have the energy for it.”
Archival boxes for items such as photographs and important documents are among the limited storage items that would likely appeal to Magnusson, says Corriveau. “Magnusson is so environmentally aware and opposed to materialism and consumerism.”
If getting started seems insurmountable, Gunter recommends an inverse approach—that is, to start with things that are the easiest to tackle, like clothing.
Swedish Death Cleaning Checklist
- Declutter small items first
- Implement a storage system for sentimental mementos
- Determine what items are worth keeping, and what can be let go
- Remove unwanted possessions (donate, toss, or sell them)
- Avoid acquiring additional clutter once you've started the cleaning process
Make sure you budget enough time
It took years to acquire “stuff,” so “un-stuffing” will take time, too, says Gunter. “Many people try to declutter over a weekend, but you need more time than that if you are going to sell, reuse, and recycle in a meaningful way. Swedish Death Cleaning means that you start well in time, so that you have an opportunity to carefully consider where things go.”
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