Decluttering: The Swedish Death Cleanse is not as scary as it sounds

by Amy Phariss

One year ago, my beloved great-aunt passed away. When I heard the news, I went downstairs to my living room and sat on the mid-century sofa she’d passed down to me, the one hauled by cargo ship all the way from Europe over 50 years ago. I went to my bookshelf and pulled off a copy of Robert Frost’s poetry collection, inscribed to my aunt, and I sat on the sofa and read a few poems. It seemed the best way to honor her, sitting with some of her belongings, remembering she was the one who first introduced me to Frost at all. I thought of the other items around the house my aunt gave me over the years: her class ring from Wellesley, a set of cocktail napkins with tuxedo-clad pigs embroidered on the corners and a black satin evening bag that still held a half-eaten roll of Certs. I felt lucky to have the memories of my aunt, those carefully chosen, curated items from her life. Then I thought of how different my experience was from so many of my friends.

For many people I know, the death of a loved one is not only a time to grieve and reflect, but also a stressful, emotionally-charged haze of reconciling estates, selling cars and de-cluttering homes full of a lifetime of stuff. I’ve had friends speak of the emotional toll of not only suffering a loss but also managing to somehow find the mental reserves to tackle the processing of a loved one’s possessions. Friends tell tales of sitting for hours on the floor of a parent’s bedroom, deciding which items to keep, which to donate and which to throw out, ending the day in a stream of tears rather than relief. With all of this in my mind, I was intrigued when I heard of a different way of going about de-cluttering, particularly later in life: The Swedish Death Cleanse.

I’ll admit, when I first heard the term Swedish Death Cleanse, it sounded a bit, well, morose. I pictured a person on his deathbed, swathed in white, about to have a water-infused cleansing ritual. The Swedish Death Cleanse, it turns out, is much less macabre. In fact, when performed on one’s own terms, a Swedish Death Cleanse can actually be a blessing and cathartic release before our final days.

The idea is based on the Swedish word “dostadning,” from the words for death and cleaning.  The concept is simple: don’t wait until we die to de-clutter. Instead, the Swedish believe de-cluttering and sorting through one’s belongings should begin during the second stage of our lives, around the age of 65. Why burden our children, grandchildren or friends with the job of dealing with decades of paperwork, exercise equipment and old clothing, particularly during an already difficult period? No, say the Swedish; this is not right. Instead, let the de-cluttering begin now, while we’re able to do it ourselves. Not only does a Swedish Death Cleanse relieve our loved ones of the responsibility of dealing with our belongings when the time comes, but de-cluttering now means living with less clutter for us, today.

Here are some helpful tips on getting started, staying the course and completing your own Swedish Death Cleanse:

Go Slowly

De-cluttering and reviewing our possessions takes time. It’s emotionally and physically exhausting, so don’t feel as if must be done on a strict deadline. Set realistic goals that don’t feel overwhelming. The process itself will be challenging enough without rushing to accomplish in a week what can be done in a few months. A friend’s mother, upon her husband’s death, de-cluttered her entire home. The process took her an entire year to complete, but she reported feeling happy with her progress and at peace with her decisions. Unless you’re looking at a deadline such as a moving date, give yourself the time necessary to honor the cleanse with happy memories, time to reflect and space to truly consider what to keep, what to pass on and what to toss.

Determine Your Why

The ‘why’ is often the meaning behind a goal. When we know our ‘why,’ the how becomes much easier, and the hard work involved in meeting our goals becomes less of a burden. Understanding your own ‘why’ when it comes to a de-cluttering cleanse is the key to staying the course and enjoying the process. Perhaps you don’t want to burden your children when the time comes to sort through your stuff. Do you already feel consumed by clutter and want to spend the next half of your life less weighed-down by physical objects? Maybe there are parts of your past you’re ready to let go of as a means to fully embrace the future. Whatever your ‘why,’ get clear on it before you begin, and let it sustain you through the sorting, filing and passing-on in your de-cluttering future.

Make It Your Own

There are no hard-and-fast rules when it comes to de-cluttering. What matters to you won’t matter to your neighbor, your son or anyone else. Nobody else will value the salt-and-pepper shaker collection you’ve acquired from 20 years of family road trips or see the value in a worn out bowling bag or a faded stack of letters. Just as nobody can determine what matters to you, nobody else can tell you how many boxes to give away, how many items to keep, how long it should take or what the definition of ‘minimal’ is. The only rules that matter are the ones you set for yourself, and even those can get tossed (along with Grandma’s costume jewelry) out the window if you feel they’re holding you back. The point of a cleanse isn’t to adhere to strict guidelines or end up with a space devoid of objects; the point is to process your stuff on your own terms, so that you and your loved ones can live now with the peace of knowing the work has been done.

My great aunt gave me the evening bag 10 years before her death, and we had a good laugh when I found the half-eaten Certs. I read her several Frost poems while she sat in a chair recovering from surgery beside an open window. She saw pictures of my kids sitting on the sofa she hauled all the way to America from Europe. She had the pleasure of seeing her beloved possessions passed down, in her own time and on her own terms. Though she didn’t necessarily label it a Swedish Death Cleanse, in her own way, my aunt subscribed to the idea that de-cluttering didn’t have to be put off; she did it herself and often expressed to me that living with less eased her anxiety and gave her a sense of peace. For me, I was able to enjoy these gifted treasures with my aunt during her life and now, as a reminder of her, a year after her passing. The one dark secret? I gave the pigs-in-tuxedo cocktail napkins to a thrift store during my own de-cluttering process. I think my aunt would approve.

If you’d like to learn more about a Swedish Death Cleanse or de-cluttering in general, check out these books:

The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Free Yourself and Your Family From a Lifetime of Clutter
(Margareta Magnusson)

Downsizing the Family Home: What to Save, What to Let Go
(Marni Jameson, AARP)

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing
(Marie Kondo)

Decluttering at the Speed of Life: Winning Your Never-Ending Battle With Stuff
(Dana K. White)

The Stories We Leave Behind: A Legacy-Based Approach to Dealing with Stuff
(Laura H. Gilbert)