Everything You Need to Know About Swedish Death Cleaning
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We have Amy Poehler to thank for the latest craze to sweep the organizing sphere: Swedish death cleaning. The technique is pretty much exactly what you're imagining: It's the process of decluttering and organizing your belongings so that when you pass, your loved ones won't have to wade through piles of knickknacks and 30-year-old paperwork. (Think of it as more heavy-duty than spring cleaning but less intense than a full Kondo.) An age-old concept in Sweden and throughout Scandinavia, the concept has landed stateside with a new show on Peacock produced by Pohler and narrated by Amy Schumer called The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning.
The show is based on a 2018 New York Times best-selling book of the same name. In it, author Margareta Magnusson recounts the process of cleaning out her late husband's storage shed. In each episode, the three authentically Swedish hosts—an organizer, designer, and psychologist—walk a participant through the steps of the death cleaning process, help them declutter, and hold their hand as they manage the thoughts and emotions around sentimental attachment and their own morality that emerge. Trust us, it's lighter and funnier than it sounds.
It makes sense to us that it's a hit. After all, we've looked to the Nordic countries for functional designs (the iconic Alvar Aalto stools) and relaxation ideas (saunas!) for ages. So what actually is Swedish death cleaning? Below, we highlight the seven pillars of the cleaning process that you'll see on the show.
Swedish Death Cleaning Basics
The basic definition of Swedish death cleaning is the process in which a person cleans out their belongings and sets their affairs in order in anticipation of their death. Think about it: Rather than leave your loved ones to sort through a closet of sweaters you haven't worn in years or shelves full of books you've already read, why not make their lives easier by doing the hard work for them? Things you still need to live happily or want to pass on—extra supplies for your favorite hobby, family photo albums—are exempy.
What Areas Should You Focus On?
The short answer: all of them. The long answer: Begin with the area that's easiest to tackle, and work towards the most overwhelming one. Magnusson's book recommends starting in an attic or basement, an area that is bound to contain many items you don't need—like old toys or broken holiday decorations. Once you've determined a category of things you have an abundance of (like clothes or books), you can begin to sort through them without any emotional attachment.
Six Tips For Successful Swedish Death Cleaning
Does anyone really need five serving platters? Seven sets of matching napkins? What about those roller skates you swore you'd use to exercise? We often hold onto things for their potential or "just in case" utility, but that only creates clutter. Getting rid of excess items you no longer have a use for is a simple place to start. This step is closest to a Marie Kondo–style decluttering.
A tedious yet beneficial process, the most streamlined and functional way to hold onto family heirlooms and sentimental photos is to digitize them. Schedule a day to sit down and scan everything from house deeds and medical records to those pre-social-media vacation photos from the 1990s. A flash drive is much more manageable than an entire filing cabinet.
Discard with Intention, Not Guilt
No matter what you're decluttering, it's easy to feel guilty about creating waste or getting rid of things that are still useful. We're not suggesting that everything go into a landfill. Donate clothes to a charity shop and books to your local library. When you discard items with the intent of making your life and your loved ones' lives easier, the guilt starts to fade.
Whether you're in your early twenties or early eighties, the simplest way to start Swedish death cleaning is to, well, stop shopping. Buying less doesn't mean cutting back on what you love or enjoy, but it does remind you to think twice before adding that sundress to your cart or buying another throw pillow for your already-comfortable bed.
Be Considerate of Others
Let your family members know you're undergoing this process—not as a warning but as a last call. That way, they can call dibs on anything they'd like to take off your hands now (if you were planning to get rid of it) and speak up if there are items they'd like you to keep (like old art projects or their high school diploma).
Take Care of Yourself
Swedish death cleaning is a marathon, not a sprint. No one is expecting you to declutter your entire life in a single day, week, or even month. Be sure to take breaks, ask for help, and request support from your loved ones. Cleaning and organizing is as mentally draining as it can be physically. But going through your old belongings can actually be fun if you let it. Take joy in the nostalgia and maybe spend some extra time going through photos and recalling memories. Our belongings communicate who we are and what we value, so allow yourself to feel your feelings and reflect on your life—where you've been and where you have yet to go.
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