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What is Swedish Death Cleaning: Decluttering Before You Die

What is Swedish Death Cleaning: Decluttering Before You Die

This year I inadvertently helped my parents embark on the act of Swedish death cleaning. 

Shortly after my father received his cancer diagnosis, I began helping my parents clean and declutter their home. Although they keep a relatively organized house, they still had too much stuff and not enough space to welcome visitors after my dad became ill. 

The house’s main rooms were open and clear of clutter, but the areas around my dad’s office and bedroom were full of unnecessary objects. When friends and family visited, we sat in cramped corners. Shortly after my dad began feeling sick, I set out to remove unwanted possessions to make room for the people my dad loved.

What is Swedish Death Cleaning?

Swedish death cleaning is a method of paring down your possessions so your friends and family won’t have to figure out what to do with them after you’re gone. Let’s face it, we all have stuff, and when we die, our belongings remain behind for our friends and family to process.

The phrase became popular in the U.S. after Margareta Magnusson wrote a book called The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Free Yourself and Your Family from a Lifetime of Clutter. In Sweden, Swedish death cleaning is known as döstädning. Dö means death, and städning means cleaning.

It may sound morbid to perform the act of death cleaning, but it’s not. It’s about parting with things you don’t want to save your friends and relatives from the burden of doing it for you. Swedish death cleaning makes space in your life right now. It also makes your loved ones lives easier in the future.

The rules for decluttering and Swedish death cleaning are similar. You eliminate the excess and create more space for yourself. Minimizing helps the people who live in your house, but Swedish death cleaning takes this one step further. It benefits you now and also helps those who sort through your possessions after you pass away.

Marie Kondo taught us to ask, “Does this spark joy?” Now, take that konmari method one step further and ask yourself, “Should I keep this? Will it spark joy for someone else? Will my children, grandchildren, friends, or relatives want this one day?”

Will your children happily drink from your beloved tea cup? Will they smile as they look in the mirror at the sparkling earrings you once adored? Will your friend want to inherit your collection of books? Will your grandchildren wish to inherit a pile of antique toys?

With Swedish death cleaning, you declutter, keeping your heirs in mind. The goal is to pass on things that will make your family and friends happy rather than burden them with a mountain of stuff they don’t want.

Think of it this way. Imagine you show up for a trip, and your friend hands you a room full of large suitcases. Then she says, “Hey, I brought all this stuff, but I can’t carry it myself. Actually, I can’t carry any of it, so you’ll have to carry it for me.”

Would you want to do that to someone you love? I doubt it.

Swedish death cleaning works the same way. You get rid of the excess so your friends and family won’t have to carry it to the next destination (often the donation center or trash) one day.

Swedish Death Cleaning Benefits: Before and After Death

I didn’t intend to begin the process of Swedish death cleaning for my parents, but each time I carried a box out to the car, I realized they were too ill to perform this task alone. One way or another, I would clean out their house. Either with their help, while they were alive, or after they passed away.

After helping my parents, I realized that Swedish death cleaning shouldn’t wait for your older years. Clearing the clutter is exhausting, and my parents could no longer perform the act alone.

My dad died this past spring, but death cleaning provided him with the space for relatives to visit and nurses and therapists to help him. It also created room to move my parents’ washer and dryer upstairs, making their house much safer.

After my father’s death, my mom got to skip the dreaded task of boxing up his stuff. By then, we’d kept the things that mattered and removed the rest. 

One of her best friends, whose husband died years ago, said she still doesn’t have the mental or physical energy to process her husband’s old belongings.

When You Don’t Perform Swedish Death Cleaning 

When you don’t perform Swedish death cleaning, you leave your relatives to clean up for you. 

My grandmother died at the age of ninety-four. Until the last week of her life, she lived independently in a condominium about twenty minutes from my parents’ home. My parents brought her groceries and took her to medical appointments. Once a week, an aide came to chat with her and clean her house; otherwise, she performed most activities on her own.

A day after my grandmother’s funeral, a few of us gathered to clean out her condo. For the first few hours, we held her former trinkets and tchotchkes in our hands and asked whether or not anyone wanted them.

My mom wanted some family heirlooms. I took an old resting spoon my grandmother used while cooking and a mug I drank milk out of as a child.

We moved slowly and methodically for the first few hours but moved much more quickly midway through the day. 

As we dug into the back of kitchen cabinets and drawers, we knew we didn’t need my grandmother’s stuff. Our kitchens and linen closets were already full, so instead of handpicking items we wanted or needed, we boxed 99.9% of my grandmother’s things and sent them straight out the door.

It’s physically and emotionally exhausting to clear out the house of someone you love. As we moved my grandmother’s possessions out of her home, I couldn’t help but wonder what she would’ve wanted us to keep. We would’ve known if she had performed Swedish death cleaning before she died.

Swedish Death Cleaning Helps Ease the Loss

Facing the death of someone you love is difficult; adding the task of cleaning their home can feel overwhelming. It’s hard to process a house’s worth of stuff while you’re grieving.

I found it challenging to figure out what to discard after my grandmother died. As I sat, stricken with grief, it was tough to focus on the task.

I wanted to honor my grandmother, but I didn’t feel much honor in tossing her stuff into the dumpster behind her apartment complex or dumping them into bags bound for the donation center.

In some ways, I needed to hold on to my grandmother’s belongings. Letting them go made me feel like I was letting her go too. It felt wrong to purge her possessions, and I felt guilty for discarding things she loved.

Cleaning out the home of a loved one is incredibly hard. Swedish death cleaning lessens the weight of that task for those you love.

The Goal of Swedish Death Cleaning

Like other forms of minimalism, the idea of Swedish death cleaning is to rid your home of the unimportant stuff you don’t want or need.

But Swedish death cleaning takes this one step further by aiming to eliminate the stuff your future heirs won’t want to keep. First, you strive to keep items that are useful and important to you when you are alive. Then you look through your possessions and ask yourself which ones you want to pass on to someone you love.

By doing this, you surround yourself with the things that matter.

Here’s an example, imagine you prepare Christmas dinner for your family every December. In that case, you want to keep your fine china and celebrate the holiday confidently and comfortably in your home.

But what if your children have taken over the task of basting turkeys and ensuring the mashed potatoes remain lump-free? If your daughter or son now hosts Christmas dinner, do you still need to keep a twelve-piece dish set?

If it’s not useful or practical, consider passing it on to someone who will use it. Is there a reason to keep something you don’t love or plan to use?

If you don’t sell or give your china away, your children will need to get rid of it later.

The First Step Towards Swedish Death Cleaning

So how do you begin the act of Swedish death cleaning? First, tell your family you intend to start.

Then ask for help if you need it. My mom often asked me to go into the basement to help her clean out old stuff, but I didn’t realize she needed me to help her haul heavy boxes and bags out to the car.

If you are aging or in ill health, ask your family for support. Like me, they will probably prefer to help you now than feel the burden of clearing it out after you’ve passed.

While your friends assist, ask them if they want anything they see. You might be surprised by how little they want, and that’s perfectly alright. 

You might also feel surprised by what they want to keep. My grandmother might’ve gotten rid of trinkets my brother or I wanted after she died. What you think is valuable might not have the sentimental value your family has attached to it. The reverse may also be true. 

Remember that the next generation might not hold the same attachment to objects that you do. The market for antiques is dwindling, so try not to feel offended if no one volunteers to take something that feels sentimental or important to you.

Begin in the dark recesses of your home. You know, the corner of the basement where no one goes, the closet, the back of the kitchen cabinets where no one ever reaches. It’s easier to get rid of stuff you haven’t used in a while.

Give Away Items While You Are Alive

To minimize your possessions, you must figure out what to do with them. One option; give them away as gifts while you are alive.

You can hand them to your friends or return them to the original gifter. If a friend liked something well enough to give it to you, they might want it back one day.

My husband’s grandmother sent back gifts that we gave her with sweet notes about how much she enjoyed them. I don’t know if she was consciously performing the act of Swedish death cleaning, but all of her relatives received their gifts back before she died.

Consider giving away jewelry and other family heirlooms so you can see your family appreciate them. Why wait until you die to share the things you love with the people you love?

Clear Out Gifts You Don’t Love

When purging your clothes, keep only the items you love to wear. My mom used to buy my dad a shirt for every birthday or holiday, but my dad only wore the most comfortable ones.

His closet was overflowing with unwanted shirts and sweaters. When he became ill, we dragged ten bags of clothes out of the house for him! Ten bags of clothes he never wore! I couldn’t fit them all in my car.

Don’t force your relatives to drag your unwanted stuff out of the house. Look through your closets and purge the unnecessary items right now.

Put Sentimental Items in a Throw Away Box.

Margareta Magnusson, the author of “The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Free Yourself and Your Family from a Lifetime of Clutter,” suggests creating a “throw-away” box for treasures you love but no one else wants to keep.

Use this box to store personal items that matter to you but won’t matter to anyone else. Inside, you can include pictures, love letters, photographs, or your kids’ old artwork. If you place photos in the box, write the names of the people shown in them. I loved looking through my dad’s old pictures after he passed and kept a couple of them.

I like Magnusson’s idea, but I think you should find a way to showcase the items inside that box. Make a toy shelf filled with toys from childhood, put a train track around your kids’ old bedroom, and frame photographs and love letters so you can enjoy them.

You don’t have to stow the sentimental items in a box that never sees the light of day. Celebrate the things you love. Build a shelf for them and put them on display 

Swedish Death Cleaning at An Age

We never know how many days we will live on this beautiful green and blue planet. Swedish death cleaning doesn’t need to wait for old age, nor should it. 

Death cleaning isn’t a one-time event. Like other aspects of minimalism, you must keep up with the decluttering process.

Understanding and performing the act of Swedish death cleaning while you’re young helps you create a calm, open space. It also helps eliminate the anxiety and fears associated with thinking about death.

It helps us focus on the things we plan to leave behind and lessen the burden for those left to care for them.

Shesfired

Monday 5th of September 2022

My parents moved two years ago to a much smaller house. They gave away truckloads of unwanted things. Since I will likely be in charge of this, I was grateful they made a start on it. In the process, they offered me and my siblings several items of furniture and antiques. We all gently replied that we have our own things, and none of us needed an antique grandfather clock, China cabinet or set of Christmas dishes. They were saving things for us that we didn't want or care about! When they realized we didn't want those things it was easier for them to let things go. Their new house is smaller but feels open and spacious without all their "stuff."

Cindy Brick

Friday 12th of August 2022

I can speak to this two different ways -- first, from my mom's estate. (She died in Jan. 2022, after months of ill health switching from nursing home to hospital to rehab -- and back.) But I am also a senior personal property appraiser who's often brought in to analyze estates.

It is very easy, in the rush to finish, to throw away or discard things you should have been keeping. Bring in a professional, if needed, and charge their fee to the estate. (We don't cost THAT much.) At the very least, you won't be getting rid of items that will actually increase the value of the estate for the heirs. At the most, you can ease your mind that what you DO discard isn't worth that much.

We spent months in Michigan, away from our Colorado home, to take care of Mom and help out with her estate after her death. I did separate out items that were more valuable -- but my brother was so insistent that he "just wanted to finish" that he refused to let me separate out those items. I ended up leaving them, bagged up, for the estate sale people my brother brought in. Fortunately, they did a fair job...although I later was sent a box of personal things like photos, my mom's birth certificate, her Social Security cards, etc. that some kind people had purchased during the sale. (Somehow we all missed that box. Husband and I did manage to grab a number of boxes of old documents, photos, deeds, etc.)

Ironically, more than 6 months later, Mom's estate STILL is not completely settled. I could have sold these items...and I think they would have brought in more money. But Brother is satisfied, and at this point, I really don't care anymore.

I was able to gather up all of the jewelry, and several items our daughters wanted. (I got some things I remembered fondly, too, as well as needlework items I made for my folks over the years.) We live in a fifth-wheel at present, so were only able to keep a rocking chair I valued. I donated some heavy oak furniture, plus an old sewing machine on a stand, to the local historical society.

So...do I agree with the general goal of Swedish death cleaning? Of course. We went through it to a large degree when we sold our home and moved into this fifth-wheel more than three years ago! But do I think it should be rushed through? Nope - sorry. Better to start early.

One Frugal Girl

Friday 12th of August 2022

@Cindy Brick, The beauty of Swedish death cleaning is that you can take your time and slowly declutter. Then rinse, repeat and continue keeping your house clutter free with the same frame of mind. My dad had an offer on my grandmother's house so we didn't have a lot of time to parse through her belongings. I haven't missed anything we removed, but I do wish we'd taken a slower approach. It's crazy to think you almost gave away a box of personal information like social security cards! Thank you for sharing your perspective and how it differed from your brother's. Sibling dynamics definitely play a role in processes like these and it's often hard to balance the expectations and ideals for all parties.

Revanche @ A Gai Shan Life

Thursday 11th of August 2022

I try to practice this regularly in our home. No matter how much or how little time we have, I don't want to spend it surrounded by, and feeling crowded by, too much stuff. Even less do I want someone else having to dig through and dump everything for me when my time comes.

One Frugal Girl

Friday 12th of August 2022

@Revanche @ A Gai Shan Life, Having partially cleaned out my parents' house I definitely want to avoid passing on the job to my own kids.