Death Cleaning: An Admirably Efficient Swedish Concept

November 1, 2019

This article was written for Annabel & Grace, which is now part of Rest Less.

I’ve always liked the Swedes. Their efficient, eco-friendly and pleasant nature is reflected in the things they’re famous for. The rest of the world seem to agree if the wide popularity of their flat-pack furniture, Volvo’s, meatballs, cool Swedish design and Abba are anything to go by.  Now I’ve discovered another reason to admire them. In Sweden it’s called “Dostadning”. In English “Death Cleaning”.

As we go through life we all accumulate stuff. Unless we regularly cull it, we run the risk of leaving our children to deal with it. This (as the Swedes will attest) is not good.

Death Cleaning: An Admirably Efficient Swedish Concept
Book by Margareta Magnusson
“Witty, useful and oddly profound” Time Magazine

I agree and so does Margareta Magnusson, the Swedish author who wrote The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning.  It’s a slim volume described by Time magazine as “witty, useful and oddly profound”. I recommend it and this is why.

In the last two years I’ve had the unenviable task of emptying and selling two homes and winding up the affairs of three close members of my family and either selling, giving away or disposing of every physical thing they owned.

Absolutely everything.

It’s been a test of my mental stability to cope whilst the emotions were still raw. The practical side has severely tried me to the point where I’ve been climbing the walls at times. A combination of good health, physical strength and my sheer Aries stubbornness means the end is finally in sight. But it’s been really hard. So I’d like to make a suggestion.

Instead of leaving it to your loved ones to deal with at a time they’re probably still grieving for you, start de-cluttering and getting your affairs in order NOW and keep at it. Make it a lifestyle choice. How do you start?

Time to start decluttering? Death Cleaning: An Admirably Efficient Swedish Concept

Woman with empty cardboard box
Time to start decluttering?

The first thing to do is admit you’re hoarder. I can hear you saying “I’m not!” Well, if you think you aren’t, imagine you’ve suddenly been abducted by aliens whilst putting the bins out. Happens all the time (usually in America).

Your children go looking for you in your loft, garage, under the stairs, the spare room and in your pantry. What would they find? I rest my case. 

Once you’ve mentally held up your hands, sat down in a draughty church hall in a semi-circle and said “My name is Joan Bloggs and I am a hoarder” you’re on your way.

The next step is to stop accumulating more stuff. You might think women are more likely to be shopaholics than men, but since the invention of on-line purchasing, we are just as prone to pushing buttons whilst bored and finding a box of books on our doorstep we could have lived without.

Death Cleaning: An Admirably Efficient Swedish Concept
The many benefits of decluttering... now

So when next faced with that purchase, I stop and ask myself “Do I REALLY need this? The salutary experience of Death Cleaning now means I put it back. As a result I can actually see gaps between the shirts in my wardrobe for the first time in many years – and they’re not creased.

An ex of mine was ruthless. Twice a year in spring and autumn she would give away armfuls of perfectly good and often expensive clothes and shoes. This was because she’d previously moved from a country mansion to a relatively small London townhouse following a divorce and disposed of most of her worldly goods to do it. So she had form – and I was in awe as I’m a serial recycler.

Throwing stuff is not in my DNA. If I can repair or refurbish something to stop it going to landfill, I will. Take my brother’s toaster (please!)

Two of the four slots had stopped working and most people would have binned it. But I took it to my monthly repair café where for a donation of a few pounds a kindly retired electrician coaxed it back to life. I then emptied the crumbs out, cleaned and polished then posted it on several local social media sale sites (which are free) and Terry the Toaster is out of my life.   

Then there’s the wonderful world of charity shops.

Death Cleaning: An Admirably Efficient Swedish Concept
Sue Ryder charity shop

I’m now on first name terms with my local Sue Ryder outlet. They recently took the unusual step of appealing through the local newspaper to ask donors to stop leaving them things they can’t sell. It often costs them money to then dispose of these items which could have gone to help people with life-threatening illnesses. Want to be responsible for that?

There are a surprising number of things they won’t take because legally they can’t sell them. Ready?

Upholstered furniture without a fire label. Nightwear not labelled as fire-resistant. Toys without a CE mark. Exercise bikes. Hot water bottles, roller skates, laptops, tablets, mobile phones, toy guns, used duvets, wheelchairs, power tools – the list goes on. So check with them first before you load up.

The same goes for your local council recycle centre. View their website to save a wasted journey as policies to what they will and won’t accept change as do the charges they make for some items. Used mattress anyone?

Most importantly, make sure your nearest and dearest are party to where your will is and that it’s up to date. You have made one haven’t you? Where is it? Does your NOK know?

Death Cleaning: An Admirably Efficient Swedish Concept
Does your next of kin know where you will is? Do you have one?

You might think this is basic stuff but my brother who was a successful company director hid his in a kitchen drawer and didn’t get it correctly signed. Aaahhhhhgggghhhh!!!

My daughter knows who my solicitors are, that they have my will and accompanying it is a Statement of Wishes which, although not a legal document, will tell her what I’d like – from the wicker box they carry me in to the music they carry me out to.

The upside of de-cluttering your life and sorting out your affairs once achieved will give you an enormous sense of relief and satisfaction. Your loved ones will also admire your almost Swedish efficiency – and won’t be left (as I was) feeling like they’re “finally facing their Waterloo”.


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