Swedish Death Cleaning Sounds Alarming but It's Actually Quite Thoughtful

February 22, 2018

I bet you're wondering: What kind of morbid road are you about to take me down? Trust me, I thought the same when I first heard of the book The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Free Yourself and Your Family from a Lifetime of Clutter. The title alone is enough to grab your attention, and grab it did.

In her practical and somewhat charming book, author Margareta Magnusson (who says she is "now somewhere between eighty and one hundred years old") openly talks about Swedish death cleaning and her responsibility to start clearing out unnecessary belongings before others have to do it for her. You don't have to be aging to start, either; Swedish death cleaning can begin at any age or life stage, with principles you can easily fold into your life right now.

Read on for an informative excerpt that is more uplifting than dark.


I am death cleaning, or, as we call it in Swedish, döstädning.

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Dö is “death” and städning is “cleaning.” In Swedish it is a term that means that you remove unnecessary things and make your home nice and orderly when you think the time is coming closer for you to leave the planet.

It is so important that I have to tell you about it. Maybe I can also give you a few tips, since this is something that we will all have to face sooner or later. We really must if we want to save precious time for our loved ones after we are gone.

So what is death cleaning? For me it means going through all my belongings and deciding how to get rid of the things I do not want anymore. Just look around you. Several of your things have probably been there for so long that you do not even see or value them anymore.

I think the term döstädning is quite new, but not the act of döstädning. It is a word that is used when you or someone else does a good, thorough cleaning and gets rid of things to make life easier and less crowded. It does not necessarily have to do with your age or death, but often does. Sometimes you just realize that you can hardly close your drawers or barely shut your closet door. When that happens, it is definitely time to do something, even if you are only in your thirties. You could call that kind of cleaning döstädning, too, even if you may be many, many years away from dying.

I have death cleaned so many times for others, I’ll be damned if someone else has to death clean after me.
Margareta Magnusson

I think women have always death cleaned, but women’s work is not often in the spotlight, and should be appreciated more. When it comes to death cleaning, in my generation and those older than me, women tend to clean up after their husbands first, and then they clean up before they themselves are no more. While one would usually say “clean up after yourself,” here we are dealing with the odd situation of cleaning up before... we die.

Some people can’t wrap their heads around death. And these people leave a mess after them. Did they think they were immortal?

Many adult children do not want to talk about death with their parents. They should not be afraid. We must all talk about death. If it’s too hard to address, then death cleaning can be a way to start the conversation.

The other day, I told one of my sons that I was death cleaning and writing a book about it. He wondered if it was going to be a sad book and whether it made me sad to write it.

No, no, I said. It is not sad at all. Neither the cleaning nor the writing of the book.

Sometimes I feel a little uncomfortable with how unappreciative I am being about some of the things I want to rid myself of. Some of these things have brought benefits to me.

But I’ve discovered that it is rewarding to spend time with these objects one last time and then dispose of them. Each item has its own history, and remembering that history is often enjoyable. When I was younger, I never used to have the time to sit and think about what an object meant to me in my life, or where it came from, or when and how it came into my possession. The difference between death cleaning and just a big cleanup is the amount of time they consume. Death cleaning is not about dusting or mopping up; it is about a permanent form of organization that makes your everyday life run more smoothly.

Now, when I am not running around Stockholm, taking part in all that the city has to offer, I have time to take part in all that my apartment has to offer, which is a reflection of my life.

The world is a worried place. Floods, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, fires, and wars follow one another. To listen to the media or read newspapers makes me depressed. I would shrivel up if I could not get relief from the negativity of the world’s news with good friends, experiences out in the natural world, music, beautiful things, or just enjoying something as simple as a sunny day (which can be rare in our northern climate).

I would never, ever want to write something sad; there is enough sadness out there already. So I hope you will find the words and thoughts ahead helpful, entertaining, perhaps even a bit humorous.

To do your own death cleaning can really be very hard. Maybe you have to downsize your home for some reason, maybe you have become single, or perhaps you need to move to a nursing home. These situations tend to affect most of us.

Going through all your old belongings, remembering when you used them last, and hopefully saying good-bye to several of them is very difficult for many of us. People tend to hoard rather than throw away.

I have death cleaned so many times for others, I’ll be damned if someone else has to death clean after me.

Once someone is gone, there can be chaos enough anyway, I can tell you. There are many sad stories about siblings who start to quarrel because they want the same item. This type of situation does not need to happen; we can plan in advance to lessen the chances of these unhappy moments.

I had, for example, a very nice bracelet that my father gave to my mother a long time ago. It was given to me in my mother’s will. The easiest way to avoid future complications among my children was to sell it! That was a very good idea, I think.

Later, discussing the sale with my children, they were fine with my decision. They had each been given something that had belonged to my father and mother. And after all, the bracelet was mine to do with as I pleased. Taking precious time to discuss one bracelet with my five children seemed unreasonable. Death cleaning is about saving such time.

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Free Yourself and Your Family from a Lifetime of Clutter by Margareta Magnusson.

What do you think about Swedish death cleaning so far? Have you ever had to help clean with the passing of a loved one? Share your experiences with us below.

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Hana is a food writer/editor based in New York.


Fierywench September 25, 2019
I have been thinking about this for a while now. My youngest sister died almost two years ago. I don't think I'm over her death yet, we were very close. Then, in early September my only living sibling (my other sister) died. I have no energy, no interest in, nor strength to go thru my house and basement. My husband is quite ill, and probably won't be around much longer. I have no one to help me and I'm 80 years old with a whole house to deal with. I don't know where to begin, so I don't.
Any ideas for me?
Anne March 10, 2019
Having helped clear 3 relatives homes in the past year I'm onboard with Cleaning Up Before Myself!! Thanks for a fun article
Annette M. February 24, 2018
And these people leave a mess after them. Did they think they were immortal?

This. It is horribly selfish not to think about who will be stuck cleaning up after you. It took my husband months to clean out his parents' house. They refused to do it before they died.
BerryBaby February 22, 2018
I do this every year and call it Spring Cleaning. Sounds a bit happier than Death Cleaning.