Swedish Death Cleaning

I first heard about Swedish death cleaning when Margareta Magnusson’s book The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning came out in 2018. I have always disliked clutter and felt better when my living spaces feel ordered, and the concept of death cleaning—getting rid of what you don’t need while you’re still alive so your loved ones don’t have to do it after you die—felt like a cooler, trendier way to talk about my appreciation for being organized. Eyes glaze over when I say, “I love organizing!” but when I say, “I’m into Swedish death cleaning,” people perk up with morbid curiosity. 

The marketing copy for Magnusson’s book describes Swedish death cleaning as “A charming, practical, and unsentimental approach to putting a home in order while reflecting on the tiny joys that make up a long life.” I don’t know about whether it’s charming, but it is unsentimental in that it dispenses with the emotion that often drives me to hold onto things I don’t really need or even want. I often hold onto things out of foolish optimism—for example, I’ll think, “I don’t have time to read this interesting looking book now, but I’m optimistic that I will during the summer.” By the time summer arrives, I have a stack of 20+ books to read, and even under the best of circumstances, I may actually read half of those. I’ve often joked when putting leftovers in the fridge, “I can throw this out now or let it sit in the fridge for two weeks and then throw it out.“ Adopting the philosophy of Swedish death cleaning means throwing it out or finding another home for something now rather than in two weeks. It means facing the reality that I will NOT be able to read all the books I want to over the summer and either not buying them “in preparation” for summer or giving them away when they are gifted to me.  

The real practicality of it became salient when my husband died and I had to go through all his things. He was not much of a packrat, so he had less to go through than many people his age, 61, might have. He left behind clothing, shoes, a few books that carried sentimental value, tools, motorcycle stuff, rafting/camping stuff, art/décor, minimal papers (blueprints from jobs he worked on, instruction manuals), electronics, knife sharpening stuff, just a few photos and mementos. Even with Tom’s fairly minimalist ways, going through his things after his death was tough. I was brought to tears by an old pair of reading glasses and a keychain that I suspected had sentimental value to him even though I didn’t know why. I find myself holding onto those items because I feel I “should.” I wonder if the reading glasses he held onto were special to him—or did he just not ever get around to giving them away? Thinking about my daughter and stepson eventually trying to decide what to do with the mysterious reading glasses and keychain they find in my stuff when I die helps me recognize that getting rid of those things now makes sense. 

Swedish death cleaning serves several purposes: 

  1. It relieves survivors of the guilt of getting rid of things. I grew up in a family that dubbed everything any of our ancestors touched “family heirlooms” and my sister and I lugged around many broken and meaningless family heirlooms for decades. It was a relief when I finally realized some of the family heirlooms were just things my father didn’t have the heart to throw out when his own parents and wife died. That realization helps me realize I really do need to get rid of Tom’s old reading glasses and keychain—or make an effort to learn the stories behind them and preserve them as meaningful family heirlooms. 
  2. It creates a tidier, more spacious working and living environment. A towering pile of books I mean to read makes me feel a touch of guilt every time I see it, so instead of having a “to be read” pile, I treat books I haven’t read yet as decor items and put them where they look good. While I am vehemently against the whole “books as nothing but decor” trend, I am even more against feeling bad about not having read a quantity of books in a summer no one could read in five years. Having the books serve a purpose, even if it’s just lookin’ purdy, makes me feel more peaceful and in harmony in my living space and campus office (yes, there were “to be read” piles at work and at home). 
  3. When I die, my daughter and stepson will have less to deal with. When someone dies, going through their belongings and deciding what to do with the clothing, the books, the mementos—it’s tricky. It’s not simply a matter of packing things up for Goodwill. Without necessarily knowing the providence of each item and its meaning to the dead person, it becomes an exercise in trying to read the mind of someone who’s not around to provide insight. Is it just a T-shirt or is it a souvenir from a trip that changed their life? Is it a book that was meaningful to them or one that they never even read? Better to get rid of the things I don’t love now and spare them the emotional detective work later. 
  4. It makes the finitude of life more tangible. “Finitude of life” is a phrase I got from Oliver Burkeman’s amazing book 4000 Weeks, which is marketed as a time management book but is actually a philosophical treatise on the reality that we are all going to die, no matter how cleverly we hack our time. Thinking about my own death isn’t nearly as upsetting as you might think. I’ve always marveled at the light, floaty feeling I get in shavasana, the yoga pose whose name translates from the Sanskrit as “corpse pose.” Acknowledging that I just won’t live long enough to read all the books, travel to all the places, and do all the things actually relieves me of the pressure to always be ticking something off my list. Earlier this week, I recycled four issues of a magazine I love because I realized I was not ever going to have time to read them. It was the equivalent of throwing out the leftovers that will never be eaten, bypassing the time consuming steps of packing them into Tupperware and rearranging the fridge to accommodate them. Once the magazines were in the recycling bin, I was immediately relieved. No more guilt about not reading those issues! 

The concept can be applied to much more than just material stuff. People who are cluttering my life, beliefs that don’t serve me—they can all go. I’ll write more about those advanced Swedish death cleaning moves in a future post.