What is Swedish Death Cleaning?

February 28, 2019 Organization Tips

Swedish death cleaning.  No, it’s not a new kind of funeral service, nor is it a cleaning company run by the living dead.  It’s a trendy, new concept created by Margareta Magnusson, author of The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning:  How to Free Yourself and Your Family from a Lifetime of Clutter.

Swedish death cleaning is focused on the reality that when the elderly pass away, they frequently leave a mess behind for loved ones to sort through.  Decluttering the home is a kindness to those left behind so that they don’t have the burden of sorting through the disorder. Yes, this may sound slightly morbid; but, if you’ve ever been tasked with this chore for a parent or elderly relative, you know that it is akin to trying to clean up the invasion of Normandy with a broom.

This cleaning should develop gradually.  It is meant help the next generation manage and smooth their grieving process. It’s unfair for family to have to contend with this mess when they’re trying to deal with their own grief.  Magnusson’s book suggests that around age 65 is a good time to begin because one still hasn’t lost the mental capacity to determine who gets what.  There will be items that your parents want to share with specific people, and you don’t want that knowledge to disappear with the mental confusion that can sometimes accompany aging.

Another thing to consider are the arguments that arise when valuable items are left with no instruction.  For example, if there is an exceptionally expensive piece of jewelry that is intended for a specific family member and there are no instructions for this…let the arguments begin. Whereas, if this jewelry is gifted while the owner is still living, he or she can share the enjoyment and the memories that are linked to this piece.

Now that you have a better understanding of the concept, the following tips will help you to get your parents to “buy in” to Swedish death cleaning.  It may not be easy, and you may have to be “indirect,” but you will be relieved that you don’t have to eventually decide what to do with the collection of newspapers commemorating everything from the end of WWII to the engagement of your long-lost cousin, and the unopened Christmas gifts from 1940.

  • You can begin by indirectly approaching the subject from a perspective of safety. Throw rugs and small lightweight tables and ottomans can potentially cause dangerous falls. Piles of magazines, books, and newspapers are unsightly and can be a fire hazard.
  • Request a few items that you would like to have now. Many elderly people love to give away their belongings, and they are flattered if a family member is interested enough in an object to want to own it. This may encourage them to give away even more items.
  • If you have the time and want to make this a bit more personal, ask your parents to share their favorite memories of treasured objects. You may hear a story that you’ve never heard before and can share with your children.  You can record your parents sharing these memories, or take photos of the objects and create a memory journal.
  • A beneficial solution would be self-storage. If your parents are having difficulty with letting go of their belongings, you can begin to gradually store these items for later discussion.    Involve your parents in making the decisions as to what needs to be stored or donated.  This will give you time to consult other family members as to what they might want.

Swedish death cleaning may be a difficult and sensitive subject, but it can also be reflective and rewarding.  You and your parents may enjoy discovering items that you haven’t come across in many years. The tips and suggestions that we offer can help you to make this a positive shared experience.

And, remember, if you’re not willing to have this discussion now, while there can still be open dialogue, you’re the one who’ll be stuck with the mess later.

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