Because it’s fun to think about mortality, but in a wholesome, New Year’s resolution kind of way.
Are you worried that your family will need to deal with a great big steaming pile of hoarded household crap someday?
Do you dream of going somewhere, but can’t, because you’re trapped by your stuff?
Maybe you already know that your parents’ house full of clutter will be your problem one day…
Swedish Death Cleaning, or döstädning, is the answer. Swedish death cleaning is for anyone who has tried other decluttering methods and stopped partway or anyone on the downhill side of middle age. It’s helpful at any age—get in the habit now and you won’t need to think about it later.
According to Margareta Magnusson, the author of the book “The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Free Yourself and Your Family from a Lifetime of Clutter”, it is time to think of mortality. In our youth-obsessed culture, people find the name “Swedish death cleaning” morbid, or wonder if it’s even a real thing. Call it döstädning if “death cleaning” bothers you.
Who should do Swedish Death Cleaning?
In an early New Year’s resolution, I started Swedish death cleaning two months ago, in 15 minutes a day increments. Once upon a time I moved across the country with two suitcases. Today I’m a sort-of empty nester with four generations worth of stuff stuffing my house full to the brim.
For people who like to keep a productive green home, with stuff kept to fix, stuff to make things, perfectly good stuff rescued from give-aways and curbsides, stuff for gardening, stuff kept to recycle properly, and all the rest, it’s a constant effort to keep a balance between order, productivity, frugality and chaos.
It’s possible to see value in everything—even old cardboard, twenty year old wheat berries, broken crockery, and anything that can be repurposed, used in the garden or upcycled. It’s even more important for people who see value everywhere to do döstädning, or you end up buried in good intentions.
Döstädning makes sense for everyone, even young people. It makes even more sense for people who have accumulated a lot of stuff, who are in or approaching middle-age, who are holding onto their parents’ or kids’ things, and those who want to be able to take off anytime.
Do it for your family
I very much wish that my mother had done her döstädning. My parent’s Tudor self-built house was full of architectural elements from old Hollywood movie sets, and collections of everything.
We all built it, including all the kids, the grandparents and my dad’s friends from work. I nailed the floor in the library loft, stained miles of molding, and have a scar because kids and construction sites don’t mix.
When we moved in, it was a dream home with a stone fireplace and window seats and a bathroom with its own garden, and twelve peacocks that the city made us get rid of. The house was filled with antique toys, copper pots, military memorabilia, tea sets, and antique tools. It looked like a country squire house.
Thirty years later when my parents passed away it was a mess. There was a valuable antique teddy bear stuffed in a drawer with junk, my dad’s death certificates under a pile of laundry, and an actual colony of bats in the walls that came out at night. The treasures were covered
with spider webs and dust, mixed in with trash and filled every nook and surface.
The house clearing burden fell to my sister and an auction team. It was traumatic for the family when all my parents’ things were sold for pennies on the dollar at auction. I still feel badly about it all.
I don’t want that for my kids, or for myself.
What is Swedish Death Cleaning? Can you take it too far?
You could take Swedish Death Cleaning so far that you get rid of things you will miss for sure. That’s too far.
The object is not to sit in an empty room until you die.
The object is to have things that you enjoy and will use, and to give away or sell or remove the stuff that’s weighing you down and will weigh down your family.
It’s a permanent form of managing a household.
It’s possible to go too far. When my grandma was 80, my mom left her phone charger on my grandma’s kitchen counter and my grandma threw it away. I’m aiming for somewhere in the functional and not compulsive range.
It’s not just about decluttering
“The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning” book deals mostly with the decluttering aspect, but Swedish death cleaning includes getting all your affairs in order.
In addition to downsizing your possessions, consider what to do with your diaries and questionable collections, what sort of funeral arrangements you want and what someone will need to wrap up your financial affairs.
Where will your family find your passwords, life insurance policy, will, up-to-date bank accounts, funeral wishes, and power of attorney documents? Make it easy for your executor to do their job.
No death certificates under the laundry.
Finally finish the house
I’ve also been thinking about what would need to be done to sell or rent our house, if need be. This includes taking care of repairs and upgrades we’ve been meaning to do but haven’t done.
In a 2010 study, women who described their homes with “clutter words” or “house unfinished words” were more depressed and stressed through the day. I would absolutely use clutter words and house unfinished words in my house right now.
For me, the end goal is to have our stuff decluttered, organized and well-maintained so that we can enjoy it while we have it, leave it when we want to, and let our children remember us as responsible adults who have their act together.
How to get started on Swedish death cleaning (Döstädning)
It’s not hard to start Swedish death cleaning, which looks a lot like regular decluttering. The difference is in the motivation, the thoroughness and the thought process.
As in regular decluttering, you need to build your decision-making muscles and spend time getting comfortable with the process. Unlike regular decluttering, you aren’t doing it just for yourself, you’re also doing it for the people you will leave behind.
Magnusson’s question isn’t “does it spark joy?”, it’s “will anyone be happier that I kept this?”. Or, in other words, “will anyone want this when I’m dead?”. Totally different vibe.
Get in touch with your motivations. I am doing this for my kids as a responsible grownup. My kids have their own lives, will be living all over the country, and will never have months on end to deal with my stuff. It’s my job.
My second motivation is to properly respect the things I have by recycling and selling items I don’t want, or giving stuff to people who actually want it. I don’t want it to get shoveled into a dumpster, or to be sold for pennies at an auction.
I also want to live in a house that is decluttered, organized, well-maintained and deeply clean now, before I die.
I write those three motivations in my journal on a dostadning task list, and review them when I check the page.
Know the next action: I write down a few small next-action tasks at a time so that there’s something I can do wherever I am or whatever amount of time I have.
These might be to sort a bathroom cabinet, research places to sell used books, figure out where to store my will, try out my new spray painter to finish the kitchen project.
Some tasks are longer and some can be done away from home, but they are all well-defined enough that I don’t have to think about it and can just go do it when it’s time.
Start small: I’ve been spending 15–30 minutes a day on döstädning for about two months. After a month, I was done with the east wall of my bedroom closet and en suite bathroom. That’s a long time, but that’s how long it took to declutter fiddly, emotional, hard to get rid of things with a job, a commute, and allthethings to take care of.
Do more on days off: When I’m home for the day I may spend a few hours on projects that will take longer, like DIY projects or taking things for donation and recycling.
Set a timer. I set a timer for 15 minutes every day. I can either stop or keep going when 15 minutes is up. Usually I’ve started something and just spend enough time to get to a place where I’m finished with that part. The timer removes my resistance to getting started.
Start with easy things. Like Marie Kondo, Magnusson recommends starting with your closet because clothes are easier than some other things. My clothes are already decluttered, so I started with bathroom cabinets.
Tips for Swedish Death Cleaning
This Swedish death cleaning experiment is the first time I’ve been able to actually deal with some of the harder items. Unlike regular decluttering for its own sake, the döstädning perspective has made it easier to let go of things. I’ve now learned some things about dealing with the hard things after you’ve dealt with the easy things.
Try going around the room slowly: If other systems have failed you, try going around a room systematically instead of decluttering by type of thing. This will help you to actually deal with the harder things and notice things you’ve never considered. That’s how we found out that all our fire extinguishers were expired. It means things that need appraisals, emotion, repairs, errands or research get done as I get to them, not in a magical future time when I’m ready.
Declutter by category where it makes sense: It makes sense to declutter all my art supplies when I get to that room. In my circumambulatory room decluttering, art supplies go in the art supply place to be decluttered then. Otherwise, I’m strict about dealing with a thing when I get to it. This means objects that have gone untouched for a decade or more get dealt with.
Learn to recognize memorabilia: If you are in your tshirt drawer and find you can’t get rid of your old raggedy tshirt from the important thing, then the tshirt is not clothes, it’s memorabilia. Put it aside for the end of decluttering that room. You may be happier keeping the raggedy tshirt, and that’s ok. Find more tips for dealing with memorabilia.
You are part of the “Will anyone be happier if I keep this?” question.
Use what you know about decluttering: All the other decluttering methods you’ve learned will help, like turning hangers backwards once a year to identify unworn clothes, removing a bag a day, the Flylady 27-Fling boogie, and all the rest. You might use different methods for different kinds of things. It all helps, it’s just a different motivation.
Batch removal errands: Once a thing is staged for removal, schedule the errand. On a day off, take electronics to be recycled, papers to be shredded, stuff to be donated, stuff to be taken for repair, and stuff to be brought for consignment. Schedule one or more days to run around and get the stuff actually out of your house.
Pass it on now: Decluttering family memorabilia is hard but doable. I have family heirloom jewelry that I don’t wear. It’s perfectly nice stuff. Now’s the time to learn who might want it rather than waiting until I actually die, and sell the rest.
Sometimes it’s trash: I hate throwing things away, since I know there is no away. The reality is that until we have a circular economy, not everything can be donated or recycled. Do your best, and then do what needs to be done, because magic won’t come to make it disappear.
Set a limit: If you’re keeping something because you might fix it or use it, set a limit. If you’re keeping mixed plastic non-recyclable empty compacts because you might make your own DIY makeup, keep one and get rid of the rest. If you think you’ll fix it, put a piece of tape on it with a “do-by” date, and then follow through.
See to the rest of your affairs: This is also the time to get or print out your will and put a copies in a fire safe or safe deposit box, along with your life insurance policy and bank account numbers and passwords. If you have thoughts on your funeral, share them with someone who might outlive you.
Do the things you’ve been putting off: This could apply to a lot of things. For us, it means doing the projects and repairs we’ve been talking about for years.
Talk about it: But not too much. If it’s your stuff, talk with your family about wanting to clear stuff out and get everything organized. They don’t necessarily need to know you’re calling it death cleaning in your head. Tell them you want to know what they want so you don’t get rid of it, which is true. Your motivation is yours.
If it’s someone else’s stuff, you can gently talk about needing to get stuff organized because it will eventually need to be done. Don’t be surprised if not much happens, or if you clean out a bunch of stuff and the person just replaces it. Don’t get rid of other people’s stuff without permission and don’t make it such a big thing that your relationships suffer. You can’t change someone else.
Decide who will get what: Estate executors know that families break up over who will get what stuff. Lots of families never speak to one another again over Mom’s favorite ring or who took the china without asking. If someone in your family will get something, put their name on it and spell it out in your will. That way your family can blame you instead of each other.
Provide history: Things are more valuable to your family when people know the history. If you know someone wants something, write down where it came from and why it’s important. That context gives what is otherwise just a thing some more significance.
Big things count more: When my mom died, there was a derelict RV and SUV in the backyard. For us, it’s a boat and my grandma’s wedding furniture. Remove the big stuff that’s hanging around and you’ll free up physical and mental space for your effort.
Don’t forget your digital life: Before my mom died she cleaned out her computer. No email, documents, photos, anything. She had decided what she wanted us to see. Manage your digital life the way you do your physical diaries. Make sure someone can get into your social media and other digital repositories to clean it up, cancel it, or tell your online friends of your fate.
It takes a long time: Making progress consistently is the only way to do it, and it’s going to take a long time. Most people don’t have the time to declutter all in one go, doing it carefully takes thought, and it’s more emotional to go through your own stuff than to go through someone else’s.
It’s hella hard, which one isn’t supposed to say on the internet. Just dust off that Stoic philosophy and recognize it will take a long time, just like all the other worthy things in life.
It’s a lifetime change: But it will get easier. Because life moves on, hobbies get taken up and dropped, people give you things, clothes wear out and families change, you will always need to revisit your Swedish death cleaning ritual. But, areas that took me hours to declutter last time were done in minutes this time.
Every bit helps: Even if you aren’t all the way to a completely cleared nirvana in your whole house, every bit that you do unburdens you and your family. My mom didn’t clear the house but she did decide and communicate her funeral wishes, which helped a lot.
Enjoy the results while you’re alive: Do your döstädning now knowing you will enjoy the benefits for yourself. Once you’ve decluttered an area, appreciate it. Enjoy knowing where everything is, and congratulate yourself for responsibly taking care of your stuff.
Resources for Swedish death cleaning
Go to The Source: The primary resource for learning about Swedish death cleaning is Margareta Magnusson’s book “The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning”. This book is a simple and wise description of how and why to do döstädning, told with the honesty and wry humor of Magnusson’s 80–100 years.
Get a Guide: As Swedish death cleaning takes its place in the lexicon of decluttering and organizing strategies, helpful guides, workbooks and examples have become available. Consider using the guides to take Magnusson’s rather high-level conceptual book to a more actionable step by step level.
If you prefer listening or viewing, there are podcasts online featuring Margareta Magnusson and detailing people’s experience with Swedish Death Cleaning. You can find lots of videos showing before and after results.
Throw a party: Jillee at OneGoodThingbyJillee wrote a post about what she learned when she did Swedish Death Cleaning, including have a party to have people pick what they want. This is a more natural way to do it than forcing old china on people whenever they walk in your house.
Plan a sustainable funeral: For funeral planning, see Tammy Logan’s post on sustainable funerals at Gippsland Unwrapped. My family prefers to stay home instead of going to a hospital, which requires advance planning and some family member training. To Tammy’s excellent post, I would mention that if a person passes away at home, it can affect the resale of the home. A sale fell through for my parent’s home because my parents had passed away there. Tammy lives in Australia, so check legal requirements in your own location.
View the videos for inspiration, and listen to podcasts while you work. Immersing yourself in the project will help you keep going.
Do it because you’re not dead yet
One commentator online did döstädning in her 20’s. She doesn’t have a lot of things, but she knows what music she wants at her funeral and who should get what. Her funereal play list may change between now and the next 60 years, but for now she knows she has planned well for where she is in life.
That’s a great benefit for anyone, no matter what age.
Imagine that you can sit in a well-maintained house that is full of things you love and use and find beautiful, knowing that you have done everything you need to do for yourself and your family.
Once you’ve done Swedish death cleaning, even to a first approximation, you will love your new and improved home, the peace of mind of knowing your family is taken care of, and the freedom to go where you like when you like without being weighed down.