Swedish Death Cleaning

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Swedish Death Cleaning is a tradition where a person goes through their belongings to get rid of clutter to not leave a mess for their family or friends to have to deal with after they pass. 

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It’s difficult enough to cope with the grief after a loved one passes, but the grief isn’t compounded when the family faces an orderly, uncluttered home of the deceased and finds their affairs in order. 

The small photo is the before picture in an area of our garage; the large photo is the after.  We found extra storage space by cutting out one side of this wood table to hide the Shopvac beneath it.

I was whining one day about the endless clutter in my house, and my friend Kate told me about an unusual tradition called the “Swedish Death Cleaning.” The Swedish word is dostadning, which literally means ‘death (do) cleaning (stadning)’. People that do this tend to start dostadning during the last decade of their lives, when they are still healthy enough to do it.

The purpose behind death cleaning is to declutter one’s own life in order to not leave a giant mess for the children or friends to deal with after passing. Even though the title sounds morbid, the concept is so thoughtful and practical. 

I’m fairly sure my kids are going to have a big garage sale after I’m gone. Our tastes in clothing, décor, and furniture are eons apart, but I told them they’d better look carefully in everything they are getting rid of because I hid money in certain things. Ha. I just want them to take a closer look at some of these things they may regret getting rid of too soon. 

I know they will keep the quilts their mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, and even great-great grandmother made. I compiled and wrote a book of 5 generations of my parents’ histories that I know they will keep. And I’m sure they will hang onto photos of people they know. But I’ve also started labeling every heirloom that was passed down so they will know the people and stories behind them. Otherwise, these old things are just meaningless objects. But at the same time, I don’t want them to feel obligated to hang onto family heirlooms. Hopefully every generation will have a historian who feels compelled to gather and document family stories and items. 

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I pulled all of my mother's dishes and decorative knickknacks and made a little catalog I emailed to my siblings, and family members  chose what they wanted as keepsakes. . 

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Are you familiar with your library's 

Interlibrary Loan Service (ILL)?

I checked out Margareta Magnusson’s book, The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Free Yourself and Your Family from a Lifetime of Clutter, from my local library’s interlibrary loan (ILL) service. Are you familiar with ILL? If your library doesn’t have a book you are interested in reading, they are often a part of a consortium of libraries that loans books to each other, which provides a way for you to get it. It costs nothing to use ILL in my library, and I use it fairly often. This service can save you quite a bit of money.

Our family members should be left with good memories of us after we’re gone, not the monumental chore of dealing with our clutter

We want our children and family members to be left with good memories after we’re gone, not the painful and oftentimes monumental chore of dealing with a house full of clutter, most of which will be meaningless to them. The process of doing a death cleaning years before our actual death can be tremendously freeing during this time of our lives rather than sad. We know we can’t take this stuff with us, so why leave it for others to deal with? I like Marie Kondo’s philosophy of “discarding everything that does not spark joy.” She also said, “The space in which we live should be for the person we are becoming now, not for the person we were in the past.” Well said, Grasshopper.  

The hoarding gene runs in my family, and I struggle to let go of things. But the headache facing my children in dealing with my stuff has been good incentive for me to start death cleaning. My father and I live together, which makes it difficult to thoroughly do this project when we have separate belongings, along with my late mother’s things, which will eventually be dispersed among family members. Dad let me distribute Mom’s eight remaining quilts among the four siblings, and I need to do that with other things. 

 

The process will take time, but the key is to break it down into manageable jobs over a period of months. We started with the garage and attic first. It felt good to be able to walk across Dad’s workshop without tripping over something. I’ve cleaned out several closets and most recently cleaned out two filing cabinets. I still have a ways to go, but I’ve started.

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Before

How to Get Started

  • Make a list of things to de-clutter and post it in a very visible place. 

  • Check off and date it when you complete each project. Writing something down brings the project one step closer to completing it.

  • Ask family members if they want anything you are getting rid of. If multiple members want some of the same things, come up with a fair way of distributing the items. For example, you could allow them to choose based on birth order; or have a random drawing. That’s how Dad let us distribute my mother’s quilts.  

  • I saw where one couple was downsizing, and they marked everything in their house they weren't taking with them and invited their family and friends over to take what they wanted, like a free garage sale. 

  • If you like to earn money through garage sales, go for it. Or let your kids, grands, or a youth organization do it for you and split the proceeds or let them keep the money.

  • Donate your items to organizations that support good causes. Some of these are willing to pick up larger  items, too.

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The greatest benefit to performing the Swedish Death Cleaning is peace of mind, which comes from an orderly, uncluttered home, and a shift of focus from physical objects to people and life experiences.

                                                            After

Donna Van Cleve

May 2020

Archived under "Around the House" & "Aging"

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