Swedish Death Cleaning: 7 Reasons to clean like you’ll die tomorrow

Social media is stuffed with tips to declutter. My timeline pops with pared down living, tiny homes, digital minimalism, bullet journaling, more with less, two ingredient salads. I was surprised to hear my cousin Mary tell me she was starting a Swedish Death Cleanse and I’d never heard of it.  I wondered if she had something to tell me. “No, but it’s a way to get rid of stuff now that your family would have to deal with after you die”. 

Döstädning

The Swedes have a word for it: döstädning, which is a portmanteau word that translates into English as “death cleaning”. The word, and the process, were coined in Margareta Magnusson’s 2017 book, The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning.  The notion took hold and in 2018, Time magazine, describes how döstädning could become the new KonMari Method (Marie Kondo’s organisational technique).  It is about  preparing for your own end of life by sifting out things you don’t need, and saving those who survive you the discomfort of having to do it after your demise. If you know, you know. 

Junk & Immortality 

Why do we have so much junk? One Stanford researcher, Ian Hodder, says we humans have depended on stuff since we first picked up (and kept) tools 2.5 million years ago (2018). We have developed an entanglement with the things we use (and crave) and, since the end of World War 2, partially thanks to our modern homes, we have room to store more junk that’s ever easier to acquire (thanks, Amazon) (Higgs, 2021).

So why are objects so hard to shift? The writer, Davide Sisto, says the integral aspect of an object is not its ‘objectness’, but the story that associates the object with the owner, I.e., the object is a gateway to memory. Storytelling is strong for us humans, and I’m empathetic to the notion that particular items are important to us and our families, that we are temporary custodians of particular objects on behalf of others.  That sense of attachment is “integral to maintaining kinship relations” says Venn & Burningham (2021).  What’s more of a problem is that our attachment to important stuff has overextended into keeping objects without emotional (or other) value.  Add to that some of us think we’re not going to die, and you can see the need for a Swedish Death Cleanse. 

7 reasons to clean like you’ll die tomorrow 

From bitter experience, our loved ones don’t always get the time they (or we) would want for them.   I think there’s 7 good reasons to get on with it and clean like you’ll die tomorrow.  Add your say via the comments box at the bottom of the page. 

1. Less Mess, Less Stress 

Magnusson says life is easier with less mess to manage. I suspect she’s seen inside my storage unit. A 10 year study by UCLA researchers into Californian middle-class homes associated clutter with rising stress hormones (Arnold, 2017). There is a process to decluttering that makes less mess *right now* more enjoyable. First, review your things and enjoy the memories they bring.  Sift out items you no longer need. Donate or recycle them. It’s an act of refinement that can bring emotional fulfilment now alongside plans for the future. 

2. Swedish Death Cleanse is good for the environment 

The cleanse is good for both your own environment and donating usable objects is a great way to promote reuse and recycling. Creating a comfortable home with less stuff can extend your positive association with a place, making you feel more grounded and attached. 

3. Minimalism can make you happier 

The idea of minimalism, I.e, living with less stuff, is that happiness relies on relationships and experiences and not materialism. In a report on NBC, Marketing Professor, Rosellina Ferraro says that paring down lets you “better focus on the really important things in life”. Minimalism pushes back against the all-consuming media around new stuff and expensive brands and takes you out of the consumer world into the world of relationships and experiences. 

4. Deal with it before disability or sickness kicks in

It’s easier to manage a deep clean when you’re in good health. Döstädning is demanding, both emotionally and physically.  Another plus is that if your mobility becomes restricted, or you have to deal with a chronic illness, you’ll have fewer things around your home to manage.  

5. Take the chance to downsize

A cleanse can incorporate large items, like furniture after your kids leave.  Plus nobody needs to maintain a larger home, given energy prices alone, just to accommodate an heirloom dining table, porcelain collection or retired hobbies.  You may be able to downsize your home if you own it and enjoy some extra cash to enjoy experiences with people you love. 

6. Let go of the Interiors Magazine ideal 

A cleanse doesn’t have to lead to a neutral, depersonalised home if that isn’t your aesthetic.  You should still be able to live in and enjoy your space with a reduced number of things that you have decided really matter to you.  

7. Get in touch with your own mortality 

Benjamin Franklin said nothing is certain, except death and taxes, but we do act as if that’s not coming for us.  It’s hard to think about death, especially your own. Sorting out and curating what you want to leave behind as a legacy gives you a space to think about the mutability of things, including your own life.  That’s not as morbid as it might seem. 

How to do a Swedish Death Cleanse 

Magnusson advises that we start a death cleanse with the closet. It’s an easy way to begin and will show results quickly.  Psychologist, Suzanne Degges-White advises us to see it as a therapeutic life review.  It’s important to break it into manageable steps that you can see through to the end.  

The Spruce has a very sensible article that lists these three steps to get underway: 

  • Sort through clothing
  • Declutter items that take up the most space (start with furniture and work your way down in size)
  • Clean out digital files

In my view, the following tasks also matter: 

  • Keep an updated will and advise friends of anything you want for your funeral. 
  • Clean up your digital world. That’s both digital files and your online life. 
  • Appoint a digital custodian as part of your will, who you can give access to your passwords so they can shut down  your accounts. Nobody wants a digital ghost to pop up on Facebook reminders. 

Bear in mind: You don’t have to do this. 

There’s a lot of practical reasons to do a Swedish Death Cleanse. But you simply don’t have to. There’s no rule about it. Some people don’t see mess as a problem, nor do they feel stress about it. Others don’t want to talk about death and they don’t have to. Just don’t have your solicitor call me to do the tidying after your sad demise. 

Conclusion

Going through a death cleanse enables people to face the “reality of what is left behind after we are gone” (Sisto, 2020).  If you decide to do this, you can leave behind a curated collection of things that you value and that you want your loved ones to cherish after your death. Most homes are full of unwanted gifts, outgrown clothes and kitchen clutter.  Letting that go creates room to think about our own passage through life and that’s very much a good thing. Don’t leave it to survivors to clean up your clutter, and allow the process to improve your life while you’re here to enjoy it. 

Sources 

  • Arnold, Jeanne E., et al (2012). Life at Home in the Twenty-First Century: 32 Families Open Their Doors. UCLA Cotsen Institute of Archaeology Press, 2017.

Buy the Arnold book: https://amzn.to/42tUx9G 

Buy the Hodder book: https://amzn.to/4bimh54 

Buy the Magnusson book: https://amzn.to/4blYQIc (Audiobook, Kindle and Paperback)

Buy the Sisto book: https://amzn.to/48RrYFo 

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