Death Cleaning: Embracing the Art of Döstädning
It's a new way to practice kindness to others.
Updated August 1, 2023
Most of us have some knowledge of the practice of feng shui—and while many of us may chuckle at it, others follow it down to the most precise degree on the compass for happiness and success. The emphasis on letting go of broken objects makes good sense (although those who practice the Japanese art of kintsugi might disagree); and for anyone who has had to clear away a lifetime of clutter from their homes, the benefits of the Swedish practice of döstädning probably seem to be simple, good, common sense.
Döstädning is a whole other way to take control and make sense out of your surroundings that can make a difference for you and the future generations.
The Swedish tradition called döstädning, or, literally, “death cleaning,” has arrived here in the US. Its purpose is to get your life and worldly possessions organized before you depart the firmament. If I were decades younger, I’d recoil from any practice that had “death” in the name, but around midlife, our time perspective shifts and we realize that the time we have left is finite and death isn’t as far away as it once was. If you’ve ever had to sift through an aging or departed parent’s papers and possessions, you probably realize that “death cleaning” could be a very productive practice when you’re still able to do it for yourself.
February’s usually a pretty dreary month, but maybe it’s the right setting to begin a bit of döstädning of your own. Spend a day cleaning out your attic or basement with the purpose of honoring the possessions you’ve collected over the years, then passing along the treasures you no longer need to folks who might cherish them in the present. Their joy may even overshadow your memory of its presence in your past.
Some of the suggestions shared in Margareta Magnusson’s book include starting with your closet as a simple way to begin the stripping down and letting go. She also suggested that you think about your memorial service, your legacy, and so on. There’s a very therapeutic element to doing a kind of “life review,” no matter what theory or practice is encouraging this. Magnusson also noted that this practice should be a necessity for anyone over 50, but that younger people should consider engaging in this de-cluttering process, as well. It’s a tough task for many of us— more so emotionally than physically, in a lot of cases. That’s probably why Magnusson also suggested that we reward ourselves after completing some of this challenging task.
Now if death cleaning just isn’t your thing yet, you can always turn to feng shui. It’s also a practice that is designed to yield harmony between a person and the place they inhabit. Maybe you’ve even followed some of the suggestions about furniture placement and whatnot along the way. Keeping electronic devices – especially televisions and computers – out of the bedroom is said to increase the passionate encounters between a couple, and keeping pictures of past lovers out of sight is also a practice that should help attract new love if that is what you’re seeking. These suggestions also make good common sense—it’s hard to feel sexy when CNN anchors are in the bedroom!
Going back to döstädning, remember that keeping your memories, but letting go of material things, can be a great legacy to leave the next generation... If “death cleaning” makes you squirm, you can call it “life-enhancing” instead.
Magnusson, M. (2017). The gentle art of Swedish death cleaning. New York: Simon and Schuster..