The art of Swedish death-cleaning
Originally published in Livingspace magazine
It seems the world just can’t get enough of Scandinavian home philosophies. We’ve been cultivating a feeling of contented cosiness since the Danish gave us hygge in 2016, and now we have the slightly more unsettling but no less useful döstädning – Swedish for ‘death cleaning’.
The idea is a simple one: Start minimising your possessions now so that, when you die, your family isn’t left with the emotionally overwhelming task of sorting through a lifetime of your accumulated clutter. After all, none of us is an Egyptian pharaoh; when we go, we don’t get a baggage allowance.
Döstädning has become popular thanks to the 2018 book The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Free Yourself and Your Family from a Lifetime of Clutter, by Margareta Magnusson. Sure, ‘death cleaning’ isn’t as friendly-sounding a concept as, say, hygge or Marie Kondo’s ‘spark joy’, but the book quickly made its way up best-seller lists. This is largely because, once you scratch the surface, döstädning is really more a celebration of life than it is a contemplation of death. Look, I still wouldn’t show up at your parents’ house with a copy of Margareta’s book and a meaningful look but, as the publishers put it, ‘Her radical and joyous method for putting things in order helps families broach sensitive conversations, and makes the process uplifting rather than overwhelming.’
For a start, death-cleaning piggybacks on the same philosophy that has made minimalism so popular. Namely, the idea that clearing clutter opens up physical and emotional space in your life so that you can focus on what really matters to you, and on making happy memories. ‘Is it sad to death-clean?’ asks Margareta in a YouTube video released by her publisher. ‘No. it’s a relief, I think.’ There’s a certain lightness that comes from being surrounded only by items that are either useful or bring you happiness. Rather than being tethered to the past by an accumulation of junk, you are free to engage with the present and the future – no matter how old you are or how much time you think you have left. And if you are at an age when you may be downsizing or moving to a different style of living, having less stuff makes the transition much less tumultuous.
Döstädning is also about taking responsibility for your stuff, and its impact on the world and on the people around you. While it’s natural to expect to be mourned, nobody hopes that their death will be a burden on their family. ‘One day, when you’re not around any more, your family will have to take care of all your stuff, and I don’t think that’s fair, really,’ says Margareta. Anyone who has ever had to clear out the cluttered home of a loved one after their passing knows how dramatically this can compound the grieving process. What should you do with this seemingly worthless item? Was your grandmother saving it because she loved it, and therefore you should treasure it too? Or did she simply never get around to throwing it away? What are you likely to find in that sheaf of disorganised papers? Are they private, or should you read them to see if they contain pertinent information? It’s a minefield, and a terribly sad and exhausting one at that. ‘Let me help make your loved ones' memories of you nice instead of awful,’ writes Margareta. ‘A loved one wishes to inherit nice things from you. Not all things from you.’
Last, the whole concept is pretty death-positive, and that’s something our society could use a little more of. We’re socialised to shy away from topics of death and dying, but all that this does is create additional anxiety around a passing, and a crippling sense of unpreparedness after the fact. We are all going to die. Admitting this by engaging in death-cleaning doesn’t bring it about any faster, but it will make the rest of your life and the inevitable event more serene for everyone involved – including you.
HOW TO DEATH CLEAN
Don’t wait until your 80s, and don’t think of it as a once-off spring clean – döstädning is an ongoing process. ‘I think I’ve always death-cleaned,’ says Margareta. She recommends beginning as soon as you’re old enough to contemplate your own mortality. ‘Don’t collect things that you don’t want! Someone has to take care of it one day.’
While the KonMari method encourages us to look at our possessions and ask whether or not they ‘spark joy’ in our own hearts, death-cleaning involves asking ‘Will anyone I know be happier if I save this?’.
Margareta may describe herself as ‘between 80 and 100’, but she’s digitally savvy. One of her pro tips is to keep a notebook of important login details and passwords, so your family can access your accounts and profiles should they need to. While you’re at it, make sure your will is up to date and easily accessible – having your affairs in order can actually help reduce death-related anxiety, no matter your age.
Margareta is no militant minimalist, and expects you to hold on to the things that elicit happy memories. But like any woman who has lived a full life, she understands that there may be some letters, journals or photos you don’t necessarily want anyone else to see. Her advice in this situation is to keep a box of these treasures for your own nostalgia, but to clearly label it ‘throw away’ so your loved ones know to move it along without peeking.
Saving your heirloom tea set for your niece? If you’re no longer using it, why not pass it along now? Then you can enjoy it together. Alternatively, she can come clean about the fact that she’s never been that keen on it, and you can find a more willing recipient who won’t hoard it purely out of a sense of guilt. ‘To know something will be well used and have a new home is a joy,’ says Margareta.