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The Ecology of Swedish Death Cleaning

Let your material legacy be light.

Key points

  • Swedish Death Cleaning involves simplifying one's life and leaving behind a minimized ecological footprint.
  • Death cleaning can help people understand their values by seriously considering what really matters to them.
  • Death cleaning facilitates meaningful conversations and connections with loved ones.

In the age of consumerism and material excess, the concept of Swedish Death Cleaning is a growing cultural practice rooted in sustainability, death awareness, mindfulness, and love. Originating from Sweden, this practice transcends mere decluttering; it embodies the idea of simplifying one's life, supporting our friends and loved ones at our time of death, and leaving behind a minimized ecological footprint. Swedish Death Cleaning, or "döstädning," encourages all of us to reflect on our material belongings and think about how they not only impact our current psychological well-being, but also how they will impact our friends, family members, and even coworkers after we’re gone.

Swedish Death Cleaning is a proactive approach to organizing one's belongings with the clear intention of reducing the burden on friends and loved ones after death. Margareta Magnusson's 2017 book Döstädning: The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning popularized this concept, emphasizing the importance of decluttering and letting go of unnecessary possessions. Think of it as preparation for the ultimate form of letting go that takes place when our own time of death arrives.

Since 2023, it has been the basis for the reality TV series The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning narrated by Amy Poehler. In the series, Swedish Death Cleaners Johan Svenson, Katarina Blom, and Ella Enström visit eight homes where the occupant(s) are challenged with the task of letting go of that which no longer serves them, both physically and psychologically. They all have different reasons for the need to declutter and get organized. Psychologist Katarina Blom gets to the heart of the guilt, grief, trauma, or terminal illness that leads to the need for a cleaning. Ella Enström is the organizer with the “dot system” who helps each person decide what to keep and what to pass on to another person or place that can make use of the items, and Johan Svenson is the designer who gives the home a fresh and decluttered makeover.

The series uniquely illuminates the emotional toll of our overabundance of material belongings and portrays the humorous yet compassionate approach of the death cleaning team as they delve into the intimate lives of each person at the center of each episode. What do you do if you own family heirlooms that you don’t like? How do you discard the belongings of a loved one after they have died? How do you let go of photographs when you know they keep you stuck in the past? And of course, how do you use this death cleaning practice as a way to make your own life, and death, easier and lighter? These are some of the questions that are sensitively explored in the series. The “gentle art” of the practice is emphasized, but with frequent sparks of comic relief.

Embracing the principles of death cleaning yields numerous benefits beyond decluttering. It supports a sense of well-being and emotional clarity by simplifying one's living space and eliminating the heavy burden of excess possessions. By going through all of our possessions and deciding what to keep and what to give away or recycle, we gravitate closer to a deeper understanding of our own values and priorities by seriously considering what really matters to us.

In addition, death cleaning facilitates meaningful conversations and connections with loved ones. By sharing stories and memories associated with each item, piece of clothing, painting, or photograph, we can strengthen family bonds and impart valuable lessons to future generations. Everything we own has a story to tell, but this process of clearing, reflection, and storytelling ultimately transcends our material possessions, enriching the legacy we can leave behind for others. This shift towards death awareness and conscious consumption reduces our environmental impact and eases the burden on our friends and family members during a deeply vulnerable time.

There is no doubt that death cleaning can be challenging. As we reflect on our belongings, box by box and drawer by drawer, we confront our mortality directly so that we can move closer to a sense of acceptance and preparedness for our future end-of-life experience. The process can reveal our own buried fears, force us to confront ways we are still clinging to the past, and prompt us to address our unhealed wounds, especially if we are still holding on to items that carry painful memories or remind us of a loved one who has died. But if we slowly go through each item, one by one, reflecting and letting go of each item (and each wound) as necessary, the result can be a profoundly healing and freeing experience.

Ecologically speaking, death cleaning promotes resource conservation by encouraging us all to reduce consumption and limit the accumulation of unnecessary possessions. By decluttering and donating items, we minimize waste generation, contribute to the circular economy, and cultivate a sense of responsibility towards future generations. By consciously choosing what to keep and what to discard, we can reduce the demand for new products, thereby mitigating the ecological strain associated with manufacturing, transportation, and disposal. Most importantly, death cleaning advocates for the preservation of natural resources by extending the lifespan of existing possessions. Through repair, donating, repurposing, and upcycling, we can breathe new life into old items.

In her book, Magnusson states, “This crazy consumption we are all part of will eventually destroy our planet – but it doesn’t have to destroy the relationships you have with whomever you leave behind” (57). Swedish Death Cleaning serves as a catalyst for broader conversations about end-of-life planning, sustainable living, and responsible consumption. It is an act of love for all those who will be in the position to clean out our “stuff” after we are gone. It asks us all to reevaluate our relationship with our material possessions and embrace a more intentional way of living by valuing quality over quantity. While individual choices may seem insignificant in isolation, collectively, they have the power to drive meaningful change.


Magnusson, Margereta. (2017). Döstädning: The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning. Canongate Books.

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