What is Swedish Death Cleaning?

“Swedish Death Cleaning” is the act of cleaning, organizing, and decluttering your home before you die, to lessen the burden on your family and loved ones after you’re gone. Often, this is practiced by older people or people who have terminal illnesses.

The History of Swedish Death Cleaning

The term “Swedish Death Cleaning” was coined by Margareta Magnussen in her 2017 book “The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Free Yourself and Your Family from a Lifetime of Clutter.”

Magnussen asks her readers to think about the stuff they will leave behind and the loved ones who will be left to sort through, tidy, and manage all of those items. This can be both physically and emotionally taxing, particularly if you have a lot of possessions of varying degrees of meaningfulness.

Consider how difficult it can be for you yourself to determine whether something is important/worth keeping or not. It’s even more challenging for someone who isn’t you.

After Swedish Death Cleaning (and articulating that you’ve done this), the task becomes much more bearable for those left behind, as you’ve already sorted through and discarded what didn’t hold meaning for you.

Magnussen also talks about Swedish Death Cleaning almost like an advanced, more focused spring cleaning. She says that when you find your house so full of “stuff” that you can’t close drawers or closet doors anymore, “…it is definitely time to do something, even if you are only in your thirties. You could call that kind of cleaning döstädning, too, even if you may be many, many years away from dying.”

Step-By-Step Swedish Death Cleaning

It’s a lot like regular de-cluttering, but it’s focused on the aspect of decision-making, primarily based on thinking about what happens to your things when you die. But otherwise, the process looks pretty similar to some other popular cleaning methods we’ve seen through the years and can be broken down into similar steps.

  1. Declutter Your Closet

This can start as one big event, wherein you pile all of your clothes from all over the house into one spot and start paring down your wardrobe into something more manageable.

You can also keep a continuous flow of decluttering your wardrobe by putting new organization systems in place to keep things under control—you might add a way to track how often you wear certain things so you know when it’s time to say goodbye, or maybe start a “one in, one out” policy on new clothes.

  1. Declutter From Large To Small

With the other “non-clothing” items in your home, it may be wise to take a page from the Konmari method and start with the large items and work your way down to the small, sentimental items.

The latter can take a lot out of you and cause decision fatigue too early on in your big clear-out, so they’re best saved for last when you’ve already gotten rid of a good chunk of items.

Unlike the Konmari method, though, Swedish Death Cleaning doesn’t ask you to consider whether an item “sparks joy”, as it’s less about that and more about whether or not you actually need/use/look at the item in your day-to-day life.

  1. Don’t Forget The Digital

After we die, we leave behind a lot of files— photos, emails, receipts, other important documents, social media accounts, and the list goes on and on.

This is something that we should all consider when writing up a will, of course, but it’s also something to think about in the context of decluttering. Save someone else the pain of picking through thousands of photos by doing this yourself ahead of time.

You don’t actually have to get rid of all the unnecessary digital files now, but organizing your files so that the important ones are accessible and easy to find is always a good idea.

Some Things To Remember

You don’t have to read the book first or be an expert to get started on this journey, but there are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Anyone can “Swedish Death Clean,” whether they are close to death or not
  • By ridding yourself of unnecessary items, you are surrounding yourself with objects that have real value or meaning to you, which has immediate benefits
  • You are doing something really thoughtful for your loved ones by easing their burden when you’re gone
  • Including your loved ones can help keep you accountable and could be an opportunity to share your feelings about the things that are important to you
  • “Decluttering” doesn’t always mean “throwing away;” you can donate some of your items or gift them to family members and loved ones
  • This might not be a “one and done” process for you and you can take it at your own pace

For more on this and related helpful resources, check out our other resources on end-of-life planning.

Photo credit: Andrea Piacquadio, via Pexels