‘Swedish death cleaning’ is the latest self-help craze

It's not morose. This is a 'permanent form of organization that makes your everyday life run more smoothly.'. LWA/Dann Tardif

Stop asking yourself if something sparks joy, and start considering how your clutter will affect your loved ones after you die. That’s what artist Margareta Magnusson tells us to do with her book, The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Free Yourself and Your Family from a Lifetime of Clutter, which will be available in January.

Tacking on to the growing trend of decluttering and minimizing, Magnusson’s book addresses the art of unloading a lifetime of accumulated things through the lens of death. But it’s not as morose as it sounds.

The Swedes call it döstädning and they reportedly start doing it in their 50s.

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“Death cleaning is not about dusting or mopping up. It is about a permanent form of organization that makes your everyday life run more smoothly,” Magnusson said to The Chronicle. “I don’t think you need to start death cleaning at 40, but you need to start thinking about your habits of collecting and you should definitely start getting organized.”

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She came to the idea of the book through her own personal experiences with having to sift through the homes of her parents and her in-laws after they passed away. Then when her husband died, she downsized from a five-bedroom home to a two-room apartment.

“My motto is, if you don’t love it, lose it. If you don’t use it, lose it,” she said.

In the book, Magnusson says to start death cleaning by telling your loved ones about it — basically, that will help you stick to your plan. Then start with items that don’t have sentimental value, like your wardrobe, avoiding emotional things like pictures, which will only result in falling down the rabbit hole of memories and derail your death cleaning efforts.

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The idea isn’t just to toss everything or donate it but to pass on the items you feel are heirlooms other people might appreciate. But if it’s something you hate, don’t give it to someone you love. In fact, Magnusson says, don’t feel compelled to hang on to a gift you don’t like by stashing it in your fulskåp, the Swedish word for “a cupboard full of gifts you can’t stand to look at, and which are impossible to regift.” (In Canada, we call it a basement.)

Even if you’re in the habit of stashing an ugly gift until the gift-giver pays you a visit, at which point you take it out of your fulskåp just to be nice — stop it, Magnusson says. This behaviour will only encourage more gifts of the same nature.

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But why “death” cleaning in particular? Because, she says, as you go along you should be thinking about things like your will, how you’d like your memorial service to unfold and what you’ll be leaving behind in terms of inheritance. The idea is to get sorted for your end of days without leaving all the dirty work to your loved ones.

“Death cleaning isn’t the story of death and its slow, ungainly inevitability. But rather the story of life, your life, the good memories and the bad,” Magnusson writes. “The good ones you keep. The bad you expunge.”

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