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Swedish Death Cleaning explained: The trendy art of letting go

Swedish Death Cleaning isn’t as scary as it sounds

Person sorting folded clothes in order to donate them while sitting on couch. Credit: Getty Images / BakiBG

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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 book—“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.”

So what the heck is Swedish Death Cleaning? Let’s ask the professionals about this intriguing method for decluttering your home.

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What is Swedish Death Cleaning?

Walk-in closet cluttered with clothes and paperwork.
Credit: Getty Images / Edwin Tan

We accumulate so much over the course of our lifetime.

“Swedish Death Cleaning is a way of life and, just like with Marie Kondo’s approach, this practice is highly cultural,” says 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 Magnusson's book—and the 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 aggravation—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 Swedish Death Cleaning is good for seniors

On left, person putting old clothes into a clear plastic donation box while smiling. On right, person holding gray linen storage bag.
Credit: Getty Images / Riska / Veno

Swedish Death Cleaning allows you to take the time to appreciate older items that have been archived in places like the garage or attic.

“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 charitable organization.

Gunter often recommends sorting bins for moving and donating items.

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Process frees your family from a lifetime of mess

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 any family and friends whom seniors leave behind, says Gunter, whose parents are currently streamlining their home using Magnusson’s decluttering method. “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 personal items to sort them, to reduce strain or unnecessary movements.

Learn more about reacher-grabber tools

How to start the Swedish Death Cleaning method

Hands holding photograph in front of photo album at table.
Credit: Getty Images / vasiliki

Preserving important photographs for future generations is a kind act that they're sure to appreciate.

“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 about sharing a family’s legacy.

“Productivity also dictates that you start with the most difficult task while you have the energy for it.” This prioritization will make everyone’s lives easier as seniors age.

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 overwhelming, Gunter recommends an inverse approach—that is, to start with things that are the easiest to tackle, like clothing.

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Swedish Death Cleaning checklist

  • Declutter small items first
  • Implement a storage system for sentimental mementos and photos
  • 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.” “The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning” will teach you all you need to know about removing a lifetime of clutter.

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