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Why Swedish Death Cleaning Is the Right Way to Go

Decluttering is all the rage, but this "Swedish" slant rocks.

Kashfia Rahman/FreeImages
Source: Kashfia Rahman/FreeImages

I, and I suspect many others, have been doing a form of so-called "Swedish Death Cleaning" all along.

While some folks spend time and money on home organizers, and on books about minimalism and decluttering, many never complete the job. If you're tossing or giving away a massive hoard of collected stuff just so you have room for more, or to make cleaning easier, or because you're moving and simply have to, your motivation may dim before you finish.

Whereas if your motivation is to lighten the load on your family and other beneficiaries of your piles of stuff, you may keep working at it longer. That's one of the main points suggested by The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Free Yourself and Your Family from a Lifetime of Clutter, by Margareta Magnusson.


When my mate Stephen died half a year ago, I had quite a task ahead of me. After a 34-year marriage, every item in the house was a stark reminder of him and the shared life that was utterly gone now. I was a "keeper" all along: I saved masses of things from my kids "for my future grandchildren," and also every now-heart-wrenchingly poignant Valentine's Day card Stephen ever gave me. And he had no interest in cutting down his own collections (a box of LPs, thousands of books, every piece of paper from his many years of teaching, every letter and email ever written and received, including printouts of many emails, and so on).

Then it became all mine to deal with. And this, after having helped him dispose of his father's and then his mother's obsessively collected souvenirs and clothes and slides and albums. (My own parents are quite elderly, and I'm an only child, so the eventual task of dismantling their home looms large in my mind too. They have no desire to make my task easier, as that would be admitting that they could die someday.)

The fact is that we never know how much time we have left. Therefore, it is a good idea to take a few hours, far ahead of old age, to rethink our relationship with things. Such thinking ahead is truly a kindness to others. In a closed Facebook group to which I belong called Grief Beyond Belief, members often express deep emotional pain about the process of going through a loved one's belongings, using words like "torturous" and "grueling." Swedish Death Cleaning can reduce that down at least a little bit.

What I especially liked about the book is that Magnusson uses a folksy tone, never commanding nor making the reader feel like a jerk for needing to be given this advice. Also, she includes a lot of specific advice on items we tend to collect without even realizing.


1. Do not begin with photos and personal mementos acquired through a lifetime. The reasoning: Your emotions will be unleashed, and you will have a very hard time deciding what to keep and what to ditch. Leave the intensely personal memory-laden pictures, cards, and personalized souvenirs for last, suggests Magnusson.

2. Winnow down your cache of erotic aids, and any old letters or journals you don't want your progeny or others to see. According to Magnusson, why save things that your family will be shocked or upset by after you're gone? Clothing or nightwear you don't want to be caught dead in: get them out of the house. Now.

3. Try not to get sidetracked. Every so often when I visit my parents, I bring back bags of their unneeded greeting cards, books, old maps, and outdated notes, thinking I'll get a head start of the eventual cleaning up I'll have to do. But that takes time and energy from my own death cleaning efforts, so I need to stop myself.

4. Now is the time to make decisions about all those books. After all, whoever comes after you shouldn't have to carry endless heavy boxes to a thrift store. If there are some valuable or signed editions, deal with them now or risk them being lumped in with the dross.

5. Be generous. Offer items you don't want anymore to family and friends before selling or donating. If the item comes with a story, share the story. Everyone likes something free, and they will remember you by the things you give them. But don't foist junk on anyone!

NOTE: I'd include more tips but the e-galley I was given by Scribner's has self-destructed (as promised). Anyway, I recommend you buy and read the book, which has good ideas for dealing with all your collections, cookbooks, photographs, kids' clothes, pet items, and much more. The benefits to you and yours will outweigh any sadness you may be fearing.

Please feel free to share any tips of your own. Also, if you like, let me and my readers know which fears and blocks keep you from starting (declutterer's block, anyone?).

Copyright (c) 2018 by Susan K. Perry, Ph.D.