Swedish death cleaning disrupts natural accumulation of junk

Jordyn Zitman

The belongings people acquire over the course of their lives are representative of who they are and how they will be remembered when they are gone. Alternatively, one Swedish woman is eager to let go of clutter, which she believes is more of a burden than a blessing to those tasked with cleaning it up after death.

Margareta Magnusson describes herself as aged “80-100” in her book, “The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Free Yourself and Your Family from a Lifetime of Clutter,” which was released in the United States in early January. “Swedish Death Cleaning” is targeted at helping the 65 and older community gracefully transition into the final years of their lives. Magnusson teaches readers how to significantly declutter their lives at any age, alleviating some of the stress relatives will face sorting through their late family’s belongings. 

Magnusson addresses items in her home that are attached to her secrets, and whether she wants her family to inherit them post-mortem. In her book, she says that if a secret could cause strife for loved ones, destroy it and anything that hints at it.

The title of Magnusson’s work comes from the Swedish words for “death” and “cleaning,” or “döstädning.” Her suggestions for beginning the process include compiling a list of passwords and important numbers, ruthlessly clearing out closets and regifting nice items you do not want to keep.

Despite the fact that her audience is predominantly those over the age of 65, Magnusson says that the process is great for people of all ages, as they too accumulate clutter. Suggesting this process to younger generations begs the question of whether it is healthy for young adults to be anticipating their own death and living extremely minimalistic lives. 

Psychology sophomore Robin Brown believes that this method of cleaning is not ideal for younger people. 

“It’s a bit morbid to be preparing for death when your life is only beginning,” Brown said. “That could have really bad
consequences in the long run.” 

Brown is not alone in her skepticism of “Swedish Death Cleaning,” although many credit the process with enabling them to reevaluate the importance of material items in their lives. 

Karen Fingerman, professor of human development and family sciences at UT-Austin, supports several elements of “Swedish Death Cleaning,” such as the benefits of decluttering one’s life, regardless of age. 

“Cleaning out objects you don’t need is not really about death — but about objects, memories and transitions,” Fingerman said. “Certainly, it is healthy for anyone at any stage of life to let go of objects. Some things that we own  require maintenance and end up feeling like one more responsibility.”

According to Fingerman, research shows that people who focus on experiences instead of things tend to be happier. Additional research from Magnusson’s book suggest that people who have less clutter in their homes are less stressed, which can be a huge advantage for older people who choose to engage in Swedish Death Cleaning. 

Fingerman continued, explaining that regardless of age, getting rid of the things cluttering one’s life can allow for deeper self-discovery and understanding, as well as separate what matters to them and what is simply taking up space in their life. 

“Letting go of things you don’t need can allow you to cherish the memories and enjoy life more at any age,” Fingerman concluded.