While “The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning” by Margareta Magnusson might sound morbid when you first hear it, it’s not, really. I mean, it kind of is, but the writing is gentle, comical, and sweet and Margareta Magnusson does a great job of keeping it light and she frames it in a way that inspires celebration instead of sadness, which is probably why it’s been a best seller in countries around the world.
Magnusson, a Swede aged between 80 and 100 years old (her words) has lived quite a life. If there’s anyone who can reflect on life and tell you what to do with your belongings, it’s her! This book is a quick, light read, despite the heavy topic. It’s also thought-provoking.
So What is Swedish Death Cleaning?
Swedish Death Cleaning is pretty much what you’d expect — it’s ridding your home of the items you’ve acquired throughout your life, so your loved ones don’t have to do it for you when you’re gone. Magnusson says you’re doing them a favor, that it’s a final act of consideration.
Why is it done?
Not only is Swedish Death Cleaning an act of care for your loved ones, it can also be quite therapeutic. The thought of coming near the end of your life can be lonely and devastating. Performing a death cleaning allows you to go through your belongings and relive and celebrate all that you’ve been through and accomplished.
Death cleaning is also an opportunity to pass your belongings onto others who can really use them and love them. Your memories and love will live on through your belongings and the joy they bring to others.
When should you do it?
Death cleaning can technically be done anytime, but Magnusson suggests doing it when you’re older. When your children are young and your home is full, you won’t have time to death cleaning. Cleaning after your children are grown, when you have some extra time, is better. But Magnusson warns to not wait too long — you want to do it before you’re too old and tired.
You don’t have time when you’re younger and you don’t have energy when you’re older. Finding a time between the two is ideal.
How is Swedish Death Cleaning done?
Similar to The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo, Swedish Death Cleaning is done space by space, room by room, item by item. Magnusson goes through many spaces and categories, providing examples and recommendations for items such as books, clothing, tools, and photographs.
As you go through each space and item, decide what to do with each item. Is there anyone you know who would like that item? Can you sell it? Donate it to a family in need? Maybe some items will just need to go in the trash.
Magnusson also suggests that you should handle items that will shock or embarrass family members if they should find them after you’re gone. Is that how you’d like them to remember you?
My Thoughts on The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning
Relive & Celebrate
While I was first turned off by the title of this book, I really love that Magnusson frames the book as a way to relive and celebrate your life. If you’ve ever looked through a photo album, you know how much fun reminiscing can be. When we have items displayed around your home, they can almost become invisible. Focusing on each item allows you to think back to that item and remember it.
Pass Items with Intention
Magnusson shared how she went through her home, identified an item, and thought about who she could pass it on to. For instance, she gave her husband’s tools to young men just building their tool collections. They were grateful, and so was she. This idea is comforting to me.
Hoarding vs Collecting
There’s also a difference — a big difference — between collecting and hoarding. When you’re collecting, there’s a method and an appreciation for your items. There’s also a good chance that you can pass your collection on. When you’re hoarding, your belongings are destined for a dumpster. It’s just another reminder that we should be mindful of what we bring into our homes.
Arranging Your Items vs Using Your Items
Magnusson also made a valid and amusing point that many people find more pleasure in organizing their belongings than actually using their belongings. She was referring to her husband’s aforementioned tool shed. Am I guilty of this? Maybe.
I *do* like a good organizing session and I probably organize some of my craft supplies more often than I use them, especially those that I have on hand “just in case.”
Use Death Cleaning to Bond
Some items are intimidating and painful to think about letting go, like photos. Magnusson used this specific example to share how death cleaning can be a bonding experience for you and family members. She created envelopes of the photos she’d saved over the years and gave them to each of her children when they came over for a family dinner.
Her children opened the envelopes right away, laughing at the memories, mixing up all the carefully sorted photos, sharing them with one another. Magnusson didn’t mind. She kept the photos, sorted them again, and gave them back to her kids another time.
She cherished the memories in the photos and cherished the new memory she made watching her children enjoy reliving those memories.
Do you have any letters hiding in a box somewhere?
I have a few, but most are from when I was in high school or college. No one sends letters anymore. Except think about the roles that letters have played in history, ancestral research, and family trees. Old letters are fascinating and pretty much extinct in this day and age.
Emails and texts aren’t the same, but they’re what we use. And when they’re deleted, they’re gone. There’s not much we’re going to do to change this, it’s just an interesting point Magnusson brought up.
The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning
If there are two sentences that perfectly sum up The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning, it’s this: A loved one wishes to inherit nice things from you. Not all things from you.
Death cleaning is doing a favor for the people who come after, but it’s also for yourself. It allows you to find meaning and memories, to reflect on your life. It’s time consuming, but it’s worth it and you can feel good about all the time you saved for your loved ones.
I recommend reading this, even if you’re far from “death cleaning” age. The concepts can apply to life regardless of your age. Be mindful of what you’re surrounded by, of the impact you’re having on your environment, and of what you will leave of your life when you’re gone.