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What is Swedish death cleaning?

A room full of belongings

Many of us may be familiar with the Scandinavian philosophies that provide us with an uncomplicated approach to the art of living well.

There’s the Norwegian and Danish concept of Hygge, or comfortable cosiness, and Friluftsliv – the art of connecting with nature in the great outdoors. Now the Swedish art of Döstädning is set to get people thinking about the art of setting our affairs in order.

Döstädning, or death cleaning, is a surprisingly life-affirming way of focusing on the things that matter most, as we grow older.

Swedish writer Margareta Magnusson discovered the value of death cleaning after her husband died. She has introduced her warm and fearless philosophy in The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning, a how-to book that’s fast becoming a best-seller around the world.

The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning book cover

Frank and charming, Magnusson’s Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning (How to Make Your Loved Ones’ Lives Easier and Your Own Life More Pleasant) explores how decluttering your belongings and getting your affairs in order isn’t just practical – it can help those you leave behind when you die.

Downsizing after a bereavement can be a difficult and emotional task, as psychotherapist and grief counselor Annie Broadbent has explored. It can be easy, she says, to feel somewhat trapped by the custodianship of someone’s personal belongings and mementos. Sometimes, too, other people’s sentiments can add to the burden of responsibility borne by the grieving ‘custodian.’

box of old photosPicture: Roman Kraft on Unsplash

Magnusson’s Döstädning philosophy is about getting us thinking about decluttering a lifetime’s worth of belongings we’ve bought, been gifted, inherited and accumulated before we die.

This, she says, will give those who are left behind more space to grieve, in both a physical and emotional sense, untrammelled by the prospect of throwing away, or keeping unwanted things for the sake of sentiment.

Cleaning up before ourselves

“Many adult children worry about the amount of possessions their parents have amassed through the years,” she says.

“They know if parents don’t take care of their own stuff, they, the children will have to do it for them...While one would usually say ‘clean up after yourself’, here we are dealing with the odd situation of cleaning up before ourselves… before we die.”

Five out of six Australians think it is important to talk to their family about how they want to be cared for at the end of their life according to Palliative Care Australia, the organisation behind Dying to Talk, a campaign aimed at getting more of us to open up. Yet only 28 per cent of people have actually had that big conversation, suggesting fewer still have spoken about other things, such as what to do with all your stuff. Cheerfully frank and a self-confessed champion of fuss-free living, Magnusson – who is in her own words, aged “between 80 and 100” – says: “Some people can’t get their head around death.

“And these people leave a mess after them. Did they think they were immortal? A loved one wishes to inherit nice things from you, but not all things.”

Mismatched crockery on a shelfPicture: Brooke Lark on Unsplash

In some ways, Magnusson’s book is a parenting manual for older people with middle-aged kids.

Many adult children, she sympathizes, find it hard to talk with their parents about death.

“They should not be afraid,” she reassures. “We must all talk about death. If it’s too difficult to address, then death cleaning can be a way to start the conversation in a less blunt fashion.”

The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning is also a guide to help grown-up children avoid sweeping practical and emotional topics under the rug, as their parents approach the end of their lives.

“It is hard for me to understand why most people find death so difficult to talk about. It is the only absolutely inevitable happening that we have in our future.”

It’s not just about ‘things’

Death positivity is a philosophy that has already begun to catch on around the world. In Sydney in November, artist and filmaker Stefan hosted Australia’s first We’re All Going to Die festival, an arts and music festival exploring the concept that by embracing the inevitiblity of death, we can focus more on enjoying life.

a dad and son talking

Go through things together, or seek a second opinion if you are death-cleaning solo, she recommends. Ask, “would you mind?” or “why is this precious to you?”

“Death cleaning is certainly not just about things,” she adds.

“If it was, it would not be so difficult.”

Döstädning, she acknowledges, can be challenging, but the rewards are wonderful and freeing. Swedish Death Cleaning can help us to savour the what-matters-most in life, from spending time with family – to discovering new things that make us happy, whether that’s something new like painting, or even...shopping.

  • The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning (How to Free Yourself and Your Family from a Lifetime of Clutter) by Margareta Magnusson is published by Scribe Publications.