Making ‘Swedish Death Cleaning’ Part of My Life

Author Margareta Magnusson; Photo: Alexander Mahmoud

Home Life

Making ‘Swedish Death Cleaning’ Part of My Life

Editor’s Note: Our Umgås team sought to spend some time with author Margareta Magnusson on her bestselling new book, The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning, but she was so overwhelmed by the media response that she limited interviews early on. That’s OK. We thought it was more important to dig into the book and see what she has to say. One of our writers actually will be embracing the book as she tackles exactly what Magnusson is preaching.

My mom has a back room. And a back bedroom and the yellow bedroom, as they’re referred to in our family. Oops, almost forgot the attic – and the outdoor shed.

But the biggest concern right now is the back room, an addition my parents built to our rancher home when I was still in single digits. With a fireplace flanked with oversized closets, one of which opened to become my mom’s “sewing room,” this was the centerpiece of our family life. No one dared to use the formal living or dining rooms: This was where all the action happened.

Until my sister and I, in turn, went to college and then on to our own apartments and lives.

Now that back room has become a primary storage area, especially after my parents lost attic space when they retrofitted the attic for central air-conditioning. This isn’t a worst-case scenario of hoarding, but just column after column of carefully packed storage tubs – each carefully labeled with its contents.

Now that my father has passed, it’s time to restore some order to my mom’s life, in part to ensure she can use this space as she wants – and to keep my sister and me from doing all the heavy lifting when she leaves our childhood home. That’s where The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning by Margareta Magnusson comes into play. In her lifetime, and mine (and probably my kids’), we never put all of these items to use. I turned to Magnusson for guidance on how to tackle what I consider an almost-impossible task.

Author Margareta Magnusson; Photo: Alexander Mahmoud


Death cleaning in and of itself is not morbid.

As Magnusson writes, we keep picking up stuff at every stage of our lives. At some point, all of those accumulations – your kids’ elementary school artwork, clothes that already have been recycled through one vintage era, a lid to a pan that you lost three moves ago – need to go. Each item, she says, has a history, and you can enjoy those memories as you sift through your belongings and send them to their next destination, including to your kids, a consignment store or charitable organization, or even the recycling bin.

“When I was younger, I never used to have the time to sit and think about what an object meant to me in my life, or where it came from, or when and how it came into my possession. The difference between death cleaning and just a big cleanup is the amount of time they consume. Death cleaning is not about dusting or mopping up; it is about a permanent form of organization that makes your everyday life run more smoothly.”

Start with the big stuff.

With furniture and other major holdings, it’s pretty easy to determine whether to keep or get rid of, especially if death cleaning comes in advance to a downsizing move where living space will be more limited. Then you can dig into the smaller items, which are more difficult to assess and to which we have more vibrant memories, including boxes of photographs and letters.

“By making games and events with family and friends out of the difficult job of death cleaning photographs you have gathered over a long life, it can be less lonely, less overwhelming and more fun. You also do not have the carry the weight of all those memories by yourself, and you are less likely to get stuck in the past.”

Sort and sort out.

Magnusson advises us that we live among our collections, and based on our interests, we have different categories. Within those varied collections, she suggests starting with clothing, as items specifically fit a certain size – if not, it’s easy to give most clothes away. Then move to the next category, perhaps baking supplies or a sports hobby, to weed out what you no longer need.

“When you have managed to go through a couple of categories you will feel so good. Very soon your home will become so much easier to look after. I am sure that your family and friends will encourage you to carry on.”

Author Margareta Magnusson;
Photo: Alexander Mahmoud

Create order where there once was none.

For me, helping my mother eliminate items that she has no use for today will lighten a burden on both of us. She will have the opportunity to focus on those activities that make her happy and perhaps even enjoy them more. Success for us means creating enough open space for her to set up one of the two full quilting frames that fill her back shed, as well as better access the bins of cotton fabrics scattered around the house.

 “Work to keep things organized throughout your life, and death cleaning will be easier for everyone. Your loved ones will not be happy people when they have to do your organizing for you.”

Don’t keep death cleaning a secret.

We’re thinking of a weekend activity with multiple family members to tackle the back room. Magnusson tells us that’s a good thing.

“Tell your loved ones and friends what you are up to. They might want to help you and even take things you don’t need and also help you to move things that you cannot move alone. You will see that a steady stream of people you like (or even dislike) will come to take things such as books, clothes and utensils.”

Be tactful.

Yes, adult children often worry about everything that their parents have accumulated in a lifetime, but parting with those items can be difficult. Be patient and find the right way to approach the topic with them.

One final note: Most of the gifts I get my mother these days are perishable, like fruit baskets and cookies. She enjoys them in the moment, and she doesn’t need to worry about where to put another “thing.”

Except when she saves that specially designed shipping box. Because, you know, it might come in handy one day.

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