The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning

By Kate Love

Put Your Life in Order so Your Loved Ones Won't Have to

If you’ve ever lost someone, you know how hard it can be to go through their stuff. Not only are there the difficult conversations around who gets what, but all of the different things that need to be taken care of.

I’ve spent years accumulating stuff and not giving much thought to what will happen to it once I’m gone. There are objects that hold a special place in my heart, and others that I keep for ‘just in case.’ How was I going to free myself and my family from a lifetime of clutter? Margareta Magnusson, an artist from Stockholm who describes herself as being “somewhere between 80 and 100,” offers us a way of putting our lives in order so our loved ones won’t have to. There’s a word for it in Swedish: döstädning, which means, ‘death cleaning.’

If You Don’t Love it, Lose it

The idea behind döstädning is to remove unnecessary things and get your home in order as you age. I’ve begun to declutter using Magnusson’s motto:

If you don’t love it, lose it. If you don’t use it, lose it.

If you think about what your loved ones will actually keep, the list is small. A few sentimental items, photographs, and letters, perhaps some nice pieces of furniture. Your family and friends don’t need to inherit everything from you, just those few things that matter. One of the questions Magnusson often asks herself is: “Will anyone I know be happier if I save this?” If, after a moment of reflection, she can honestly answer no, then it is discarded.

A loved one wishes to inherit nice things from you. Not all things from you.

In her book The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning, Magnusson outlines some simple techniques to put the art of döstädning into practice.

1. Talk About Death Cleaning with Your Close Friends and Family

Death is something that not many of us find easy to talk about. Döstädning gives you a reason to start a conversation about this inevitable part of life, and to lessen any fears you have around it. “While one would usually say, ‘Clean up after yourself’,” says Magnusson, “here we are dealing with the odd situation of cleaning up before…we die.”

2. Start with the Large Items Before Moving onto Personal Things

Death cleaning can seem like a daunting task. Magnusson offers this small piece of advice: “Don’t start with photographs–or letters and personal papers for that matter.” Start with larger items like furniture, and finish with the small things. From clothes to books and photo albums, it takes time to sort through a lifetime of objects.

3. Declutter at Any Age or Stage of Your Life

I’m in my thirties with many years ahead of me unless something unexpected happens, so why would I döstädning? The simple truth is that decluttering is a lifelong process. When I faced the reality of all of my possessions it was a wakeup call. As Magnusson says, you won’t be taking any of it with you, so why hold onto it now?

4. Hold Space for Yourself for Your Memories and Reflections

Going through old letters, photographs and journals takes you on a trip down memory lane with all its twists and turns. “Death cleaning is certainly not just about things,” says Magnusson. “If it was, it would not be so difficult.” Be gentle with yourself as you go through your possessions and sit with the feelings that arise for you.

5. Keep a Box of Sentimental Items That Can be Thrown Away

There are still a few sentimental things that I want to keep. These have gone into what Magnusson calls the ‘throw-away box’, which she describes as things that are ‘just for me’: “a dried flower, a stone with a funny shape, or a little, beautiful shell.” Your loved ones can go through this box when you die knowing that they can discard it all.

6. Give Thought to What Will Happen to the Things You Let Go

Giving away unwanted gifts, passing things down to your children, or donating to charity are all ways to declutter. “To know that something will be well-used and have a new home is a joy,” says Magnusson. My childhood books now sit on the shelves of my local school and it gives me pleasure to think of the children reading the same stories I did.

7. Create Space in Your Life with Mindful Decluttering

Simplifying is something that many of us are starting to embrace. Downsizing, letting go of possessions and decluttering gives you space to breathe. “This crazy consumption we are all part of will eventually destroy our planet–but it doesn’t have to destroy the relationship you have with whomever you leave behind,” says Magnusson.

8. Take Your Time and Enjoy the Process of Letting Go

Death cleaning is not something that needs to happen all at once. Take your time to go through your things with care, to keep what you need and let go of what no longer serves you. It is a process of cultivating mindfulness around your possessions that will ultimately give you (and your loved ones) greater peace of mind.

Death cleaning is not about getting rid of stuff, but more about leaving things in order. Decluttering not only provides ease for your friends and family later on, it creates a sense of harmony in your life and home. Döstädning has made me more aware of what I truly need, and better at letting go. What sounds like a morbid practice is actually one of loving care for yourself and your family.

Life will become more pleasant and comfortable if we get rid of some of the abundance.

We can all minimise the amount of stuff that we will end up leaving behind for our loved ones to deal with. Not just once, but as a continuous process of mindful decluttering.

Words by Kate Love
Originally published on Uplift