I don’t want to call this guide to The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning a review, because I’m not really sure it matters what I thought of the book. It’s more helpful for you to know in general what it’s about, who it’s for an what you will get out of it.
I’ve written about the concept of death cleaning before, but now that I’ve read the book I wanted to give a little more detail on the concepts.
Don’t Leave it to Someone Else
First and foremost, The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning is a cautionary tale about the things we leave behind. Written by Margareta Magnusson, who describes herself as being somewhere between age 80 and 100, who has done death cleaning for her parents, her husband, and, finally, herself as she moved into an apartment on her own.
The title comes from the Swedish concept of döstädning, which literally means death cleaning, but it doesn’t have to happen after someone dies or when they are near death. It’s more of a realization that you don’t need or use all the things you have and that you don’t want to leave them to someone else to deal with.
“For me it means going through all my belongings and deciding how to get rid of the things I do not want anymore,” she writes. It gives you time to reflect on what these items have meant to you and to find a place for them to go that is not your house.
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.Margareta Magnusson
In that way it’s a gift to your family and friends you will leave behind, but also to yourself as it can make it easier as you age just to have less stuff to deal with.
But it really is for other people, too.
Do not ever imagine that anyone will with — or be able — to schedule time off to take care of what you didn’t bother to take care of yourself. No matter how much they love you, don’ leave this burden to them.Margareta Magnusson
How to Do Death Cleaning
Much like The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and other cleaning systems, Magunsson walks readers through a framework for how to go about cleaning up their things. She suggests starting with those forgotten storage places like the attic, basement, shed or closet under the stairs, as the stuff that is there has probably been untouched for many years and therefore will be easiest to get rid of.
She says the intent isn’t to get rid of everything or to throw away things you love.
“But if you can’t keep track of your things, then you know you have too many,” she writes.
It’s more about how you want your home to feel and the ease with which you want to be able to accomplish things (including your chores) as you age. Having less stuff makes it easier to find what you need, makes your home safer and makes it easier to take care of.
There’s not a super specific order for going through items, other than starting with things that feel easier and ending with the sentimental cards, letters and photos.
Lest you think this book is super depressing and all about death, Magnusson is gentle and funny as well as giving practical advice.
Who This Book is For
You should read The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning if:
- you need to clean up a loved one’s home because they have died or are moving out of their home
- if you want to clear your own (and/or your spouse’s) things so someone else in your family doesn’t have to
- if you have things you know you don’t want your children/whoever ends up cleaning up after you to find
- if you want to get your parents/loved ones to do it so you don’t have to (there’s advice on this, but I’m not sure it helps in all situations)
The book offers general guidance on how to get started cleaning, whether your own home or someone else’s. It’s a short read that might give you a push to get started cleaning while you are healthy enough to do it yourself.
The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning TV Show
The book became so popular that it was turned into a television show. “The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning” had an eight-episode season in 2023 that aired on Peacock. Inspired by the book and narrated by Amy Poelher, it features a team of “death cleaners,” including an organizer, a designer and a psychologist, sent from Sweden to America to help people with getting rid of their stuff.
I haven’t watched it because I don’t have Peacock, but it sounds like your pretty typically “home improvement” style clean out show, maybe a little more cheerful than “Hoarders” but still pretty heavy. It hits on fears about death, dealing with stuff after parents die, preparing for the death of a loved one and dealing with objections from kids when parents want to do a cleanout.
If you’ve watched the show or read the book and found it helpful, I’d love to hear about it!