Can't Get Yourself to Declutter? Try "Death Cleaning"

New book offers unusual reasons to tackle those piles of stuff you've got.

Posted Feb 06, 2018

Image by time2org, pixabay, CC0
Source: Image by time2org, pixabay, CC0

Have you resolved to declutter part of your home or office in the New Year?  If so, what is your motivator?  Maybe you…

  • Value order and want to be able to find the things you need more easily.
  • Value beauty and want your surroundings to be pleasing to the eye.
  • Value simplicity.  You like to “have only what you need and nothing that you don’t,” to paraphrase a country song. 
  • Value clear thinking. You have realized that an orderly environment can help you think and work better. 
  • Value the inner calm that you feel when your surroundings are tidy and clean. 

All of these are worthwhile motivators.

But here’s a motivator for cleaning up, sorting, and organizing that I bet you haven’t fully considered: Death

In “The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning,” a short book by Swedish artist Margareta Magnusson, you are encouraged to practice “death cleaning.” (There is an actual word for "death cleaning" in Swedish: "dostadning.") The goal of death cleaning is both to get your things in order before you die and to live better right now. The subtitle, “How to Free Yourself and Your Family from a Lifetime of Clutter,” expresses the perspective of the book.  While the phrase “death cleaning” may sound macabre at first, in Magnusson's hands, the job of death cleaning can become a matter-of-fact and even a light-hearted endeavor.  “Death cleaning is not sad,” Magnusson proclaims in Chapter 1. 

“Death Cleaning” Defined

“Death cleaning” can refer to cleaning up after the death of another person or to cleaning up your own things prior to your own death. When you decide to do a bit of death cleaning for yourself, you might sort your possessions, donating some to charity, tossing others, gifting a few things to various important people, and keeping other things for yourself. Death cleaning does not have to be a chore; you can go at your own pace, delighting in your possessions and the memories they evoke.  As you sort and re-organize, you learn to manage your everyday life with greater ease, creating time to do more of what you want.   

Magnusson, who describes her age as “somewhere between eighty and one hundred years old,” describes two additional reasons for death cleaning. One is to spare your loved ones the task of cleaning up your junk after you’ve died. When you must death clean as a result of someone else’s death, it can be a burdensome chore. It is an act of unselfish kindness to "clean up after yourself" before you leave the earth. Second, you want to spare yourself the embarrassment of having your loved ones come upon journals, photos, letters, and objects that you would rather not have them see. 

Although I’d never heard the term “death cleaning” until I read this book, I must confess I’ve had occasion to think about those two motivators.  Recently I was cleaning up after re-modeling my study and came upon a journal I’d written in my 20’s. Within those pages I revealed…well…all sorts of cringe-worthy things that I would never want anyone in my own family—or in anyone else’s family, for that matter—to know about.  

I shredded that journal.  Believe me, nothing of historical worth was destroyed, and my privacy was protected. 


Magnusson favors a gradual process of cleaning up, taking time to assess whether an object would make you or anyone else happier.  Among her many observations that I particularly liked:

“Mess is an unnecessary source of irritation.”
“If you find yourself repeatedly having the same problem, fix it!”
“If you don’t like something, get rid of it.”

She advises that we all learn to enjoy things without owning them.

When to Death Clean

As a woman between the ages of sixty and eighty, I realize it is time to think about death cleaning.  Magnusson recommends starting at about age 65.  Personally, I think any time is a good time, especially if you need to whisk away any secret, dangerous, or embarrassing objects (see above).  And it can be helpful to remind yourself now and then that you are mortal, so that you don't put things off that could make your life better or more meaningful in some way.

Finishing Touches

There are other “death cleaning” actions not mentioned in the book that are also vitally important. Make a will. Communicate your last wishes to your loved ones. Yes, those goals are difficult to carry out, but not doing so can also have enormous costs. And if you have pack-rat tendencies, consider hiring an organizing professional or seeing a therapist who specializes in hoarding. (You'll find some good suggestions in this article by PT blogger Dr. Alice Boyes.)

Magnusson’s little book may help you find the motivator for decluttering that has so far eluded you. And one unanticipated benefit of her book is that it might make you feel just a shade more comfortable with the idea of your eventual demise.  Most of all, death cleaning might provide you with a sense of purpose as you enter the portal of late adulthood. 

© Meg Selig, 2018


Magnusson, Margareta, “The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Free Yourself and Your Family from a Lifetime of Clutter,” (New York: Scribner), 2018.