Book Talk: The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning

As we get ready for a new year, I would like to encourage you to reflect on what we have in our possession and on how we can help others. The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning by Margaret Magnusson (borrowed from the Austin Public Library so you can see the library tape/sticker in the image!) defines the act of death cleaning as “when you or someone else gets rid of things to make life easier and less crowded. It does not necessarily have to do with your age or death…” You may have heard the expression, “a new year, a new you,” and so by extension let us consider adding “a new home/environment.”

*Update with my social media posts’ intro: The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning had been on my “to read” list since it came out but I was putting it off. In my head I was lumping it in with minimalism and decluttering and I had read a lot of those types of books and blogs so I needed a break. This book can help with those interests and needs, but really it’s a mind and lifestyle shift book. When I had a difficult health season recently and was not able to do much, it really became apparent to me how much my husband would need to process, it would take him a long time to do so which would be hard with a preschooler and life, and things may not end up where I wanted them to go. I also resonated with sharing things I love with people I love while I can personally explain to them the story behind the item or why I think they deserve to have something. The process of sharing now, while things are relevant, brought me a lot of peace mentally and physically. If you are worried about talking about death, wills, estate planning, that’s not in the book or my post. The concept of death and what is left behind is a starting point to begin the discussion on holding on to items and letting them go, the emotions and friendships and family involved in all of it. I encourage you to give it a go.

“Mess is an unnecessary source of irritation…Give everything a place and you won’t feel angry, irritated, or desperate when leaving the house.” If you have ever fought to get a jacket in or out of your closet, slammed a cabinet or drawer on a mess (I bent up my lids drawer doing this…), or thrown things around because you can’t find what you need or a spot to place something, the mental shift in paring down what you work with and move around may be helpful, peaceful, calming. 

To some extent, death cleaning may be considered a form of minimalism. What do you need in your home to be content and not feel burdened by cleaning, organizing, or taking care of possessions? What are you ready to move on that can be rehomed to someone else who really needs that item? I like to think of it as, “Can someone else use this now rather than it sit unused in my cabinet just in case I may need it one day?” My neighborhood is so large it has two Buy Nothing Facebook groups and Nextdoor, which are local sites to rehome your possessions without them going into the landfill or having to drive somewhere and are excellent ways to meet and connect with your neighbors. 

A second zero-waste angle, in addition to keeping things out of the landfill, is to not bring so much into your home to begin with, “…you can enjoy all these things without owning them….training yourself to enjoy only looking at things, instead of buying them is very nice and a good practice.” The sites I mention above are great places to lend and borrow tools you may use around the home. I’ve lent out bolt cutters, Instant Pots, blenders, coolers, shovels, and much more. I also take pictures when I’m out. I can’t tell you how many “that’s so cute or funny” pictures I have of things I see but don’t want to necessarily buy or own. It’s fun to see photos pop up on my memories and I can enjoy the image and remember the feeling, without having to move a hanger, drive to a donation site, or throw it away eventually.

Ms. Magnusson  shares with us the following image, “If you don’t death clean and show people what is valuable, once you die there will be a big truck that takes all your wonderful things you have to an auction (at best) or to a dump.” If you have worked on minimalizing your home or clearing out before, you may know how little money you get back for selling something (compared to the price you paid for it) or even how difficult it can be to donate an item to someone. Handling what you don’t need or want now while the interest is there and it’s in good condition is easier and more rewarding when you can receive the gratitude and appreciation now. I see stories from professional organizers and estate sellers saying that they go through old boxes of possessions and bugs or moths have gotten into clothes, water damage or improper storage destroyed decorations, furniture has been damages by continuous moving around or piling of things on top of it, etc. Several people I know who have had loved ones pass take a year or more to go through belongings. That can be an emotional pacing that is necessary and then sometimes there is is a lot to go through physically.

I leave you with this excerpt and thought, “Will anyone [you] know be happier if [you] save xyz?” Are you happy climbing over it, shoving it back in the closet, or not fitting a car into the garage? Will your child want to inherit this (please be honest with yourself or better yet ask them)? Will your executor process this the way you want, or will it get dumped? This can be a hard concept to open up to and sit with since for some this may come up around the passing of a loved one or talks of wills and legal documents, but I have never regretted any clean-out I have done. I encourage you to sit with this idea this next year. If you don’t get to an action step that is okay. Sit with, meditate, or pray on working in your heart and mind with the concept of letting go. If it helps reframe it to helping others, making clear space, creating less work and cleaning for you to do or pay someone to take care of.

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