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  • Writer's pictureBess Lindahl

How to Start Swedish Death Cleaning

We all have to go sometime. So does our stuff.

Whoever coined the phrase “Swedish death cleaning” really needs a new marketing person. Death cleaning? Really? That’s the best they could do? Anyway, it’s a terrible name for a good idea: Getting rid of your excess stuff long before you die, so it doesn’t become a burden on your loved ones. It’s one of the kindest things you can do for your family–and yourself. Moreover, cleaning out unwanted items simplifies your life and leaves you more room for what truly matters. This month, we’ve compiled some points to help you get started on your own Swedish death cleaning!

My personal death cleaning story (because my posts are always all about me): When my great aunt passed, I was the only relative able-bodied enough to clean out her apartment. I started with hauling away ninety-six black contractor bags full of junk mail that she “was planning on opening when she had a moment.” From there, I cleaned out thousands of her possessions, each one reeking of decades of cigarette smoke. I was so upset with her for leaving such a mess that it was hard to remember that I loved her and would miss her terribly. Let’s do our families a favor and let them remember us, not resent us. None of us will live forever, so let’s get cleaning!

How to Start Swedish Death Cleaning:

This can be a long, emotionally difficult process, so take your time.

  • To start, put cleaning on your calendar! You’re less likely to postpone if you’ve penciled in an hour or two per week.

  • Tackle only one space/room at a time. You don’t want your whole home to be in an uproar.

  • Start small (even just five minutes) and do a little more each session. Set a timer.

  • Take breaks between cleaning sessions.

  • Be gentle with your emotional and physical self.

  • Do something fun as a reward after each cleaning session. (I consider naps fun.)

  • Begin with a project that isn’t an emotional minefield–no photo sorting yet! For example, a closet can be a good first effort. Donate any unworn or non-fitting clothing, which will probably be about half the stuff in your closet. A less cluttered space is a win.

  • Ask family members if there are specific items they would want. Make a list of those items, then send copies to your loved ones. Label the items with stickers on the back. If they want those items now, woohoo, less for you to dust!

  • Avoid guilt-tripping your family into taking things they really don’t want or can’t take. My family is expert at this; that’s why I have six necklaces and two bracelets made from Greek coins, and my brother has my grandmother’s octagonal-shaped end tables that resemble little coffins.

  • If you have excess furniture, can you get along without some of it? Consider donating or consignment, or having them put up for auction. (See our video replay about consignment and resale. Sorry, “Big Brown Furniture” or “BFF” is difficult to rehome.)

The Hard Stuff:

Once you’ve built up your decision-making muscles, start tackling the more difficult and sentimental decisions, like what to do with photos, letters, and mementos.

  • For photos, sort out blurry ones, duplicates, and those of people you don’t like or recognize. Be kind to yourself, but try to make some headway. I know how easy it is to get lost wandering down memory lane. Or in my case, in mourning the fact that my twenty-something daughters no longer let me dress them in pink onesies.

  • Consider putting a big basketful of photos on the table at your next family gathering, and let everyone choose ones that are meaningful to them. It’s fun and leads to great storytelling! Like the time we found out through a photo that our great uncle Al had an ex-wife. She left him during his little stint in jail for tax evasion, which we also didn’t know about.

  • Many people have thousands of photos, which can be overwhelming to sort. Try setting a goal to go through just one shoebox of photos every week.

  • For letters, save only the most meaningful ones and release the rest. If there are letters you don’t want anyone else to read someday, then a shredder is your best friend.

  • Decorative objects: Do you have friends or family members who admire your style? Ask them if they want something in particular.

  • Mementos: Sentimental items can bring back memories for you, but not necessarily for other family members. If nobody expresses interest, it’s time to gently let those items go (you’ll still have the memories).

  • Jewelry: If you have kids or grandkids who love sparkly things, pass along a few pieces. If not, then consider consigning or selling items, and donating costume jewelry.

  • Books can be difficult to part with. See if your friends, local library, prisons, or a senior center want some. You can also do a Google search for book donations near you.

  • Papers: Take the time to organize your papers now (especially financial ones) and spare your family. My great aunt had about seventy-five different financial accounts with tiny amounts of money in each. She called them her “fun funds.” Ugh. It was not fun unraveling all of it. Also, check out our blog post on rightsizing paper.

  • Take care of other important tasks, too. Have a will, advance directive, and other estate planning documents in place–even if you’re in great health. Similarly, keep a list of all your financial records and account numbers in a safe place. Make sure your loved ones know where to locate them, along with your computer passwords.

How Did Swedish Death Cleaning Become a Thing Anyway?

Swedish death cleaning has been around as long as Swedes have been cleaning. But it really became popular after the publication of a charming book, The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning. Written by Margareta Magnusson, a Swedish woman who describes her age as somewhere between eighty and one hundred, it’s full of good advice and sweet anecdotes. We’re reading it for our Big Rocks book club, and I highly recommend it. Here are some of my favorite quotes:

“I have death cleaned so many times for others, I’ll be damned if someone has to death clean after me.”

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

“Aging is certainly not for weaklings. That is why you should not wait too long to start your downsizing.”

“Look forward to a much easier and calmer life–you will love it!”

Other Resources

The book’s popularity has spawned other books, websites with useful checklists, YouTube videos, and even a TV show. In addition, a Facebook group called The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning Sharing and Caring has lots of advice and a helpful community of people.

And of course, Big Rocks Organizing would be honored to gently guide you through this challenging but rewarding process.

SOURCE: The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Free Yourself and Your Family from a Lifetime of Clutter, Margareta Magnusson, 2018.

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