Summary of The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning by Margareta Magnusson

BookSummaryClub Blog Summary of The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning by Margareta Magnusson

Recently, everyone’s been talking about cleaning up your clutter and living a minimalist life. Not everyone, however, is interested in the concept of a minimalist life – and that’s perfectly fine. Some people like to enjoy being able to purchase material things whilst others are avid collectors and that doesn’t automatically make you a  hoarder. But have you ever stopped to consider what happens to your stuff when you die? Not about who you want the stuff to go to, but rather who is going to have to go through all your stuff and sort it out?

It is a sometimes grim thought but it is one that we should not shy away from. Life is definitely uncertain and the one thing we want our deaths to bring is more stress for our loved ones. Going through the belongings of a deceased loved one not only takes time but it sometimes takes a psychological toll on those involved. So, would it not be better to be prepared? Swedish Death Cleaning is a practical solution.

In this book summary readers will discover:

  • What is the Swedish practice of Döstädning?
  • Start by working with small spaces
  • Think about what you want to keep to yourself
  • Dealing with photographs cannot be rushed
  • How to discuss the topic of death cleaning with your family

Key lesson one: What is the Swedish practice of Döstädning?

In Sweden, they have a simple practice that deals with this called Döstädning or death cleaning. Death cleaning refers to regularly keeping track of your belongings and tidying them up so that your loved ones won’t have to. Throughout your life, you collect things, and sometimes they lay forgotten in the storage areas of your home. You may have moved houses several times, been through a divorce or even still have some of your kid’s stuff even though they moved out years ago. Whatever the case may be, going through these items and sorting them out will be beneficial to you and your loved ones.

This does not mean that death cleaning is only for those that are terminally ill or old. No. Death cleaning is a practice that everyone can and should follow. It will enable you to get rid of all the unnecessary items you still have and allows you to organize everything efficiently. Therefore, even if you are moving to a new home, the hard work has already been done. At first, death cleaning can be difficult as there are always emotions involved especially when you start going through mementoes of your life like photographs. But there are ways you can prepare yourself to deal with this and it will get easier each time you do it. 

Key lesson two: Start by working with small spaces

Death cleaning can be a daunting task when you begin. However, the longer you leave it, the more you will have to go through. This is why it is best to just start and to start small to ease yourself into it.  

You should decide to work methodically. Either from the top down or the bottom up. You can decide which would be best if you have a basement, attic or both. These are areas that we tend to put things in and forget about. As you begin to go through everything, consider who would have use for the items you no longer need. If you are unsure if anyone would be interested, don’t be afraid to ask  – you could even invite your loved ones over to see if there is anything they want. This provides a wonderful opportunity to bond with your family. Grandkids, in particular, are often fascinated with their grandparents past and even if they don’t want the items, they will learn more about them from the stories associated with the stuff. 

The more you go through your old items, it will become easier to sort through them You get an innate feel for what is no longer needed and who it could go to. There is one thing you want to avoid at this stage though and those are photographs, letters and documents. These items take a huge amount of time to go through as they are the most sentimental items you possess. There is no doubt that you be tempted to read every letter and go through every photograph and this will stall the progress you have made thus far. These are best left until the end when all the larger items have already been dealt with. 

Key lesson three: Think about what you want to keep to yourself

Amongst our belongings, there are always things we don’t want others to see or know about us. So, consider how awkward it would be for them if they came across it when they were cleaning out your space after you have passed. These are things like diaries, private letters or embarrassing photographs that you don’t want your family to see or that could potentially hurt them. Sometimes it is not so much the items themselves but the questions that they will raise amongst your loved ones. These are all the things you need to consider. 

When it comes to these types of items, it is best to get rid of them and not just hide them away. You can consider burning them or maybe using a shredder. If the items are sentimental and you want to hold on to them, then the next option is to keep them in a box that is labelled to throw away. You can even consider leaving instructions that once you have passed, the box must be disposed of. That way, your loved ones will know that it does not need to be sorted.

The author came upon some confusing items after sorting out her parent’s stuff after they passed. She found cartons of cigarettes hidden in her mom’s linen closet and arsenic in her father’s desk drawer! She had no clue why they had those items and could only assume what they were for. 

Key lesson four: Dealing with photographs cannot be rushed

After working through the larger items of your home, you can then go back to sort through all your photographs. Emotionally, these are the hardest items to go through as they often hold the most memories. 

Photographs may hold great significance for your loved ones after you have passed. However, what you need to truly consider is that what has meaning to you may not necessarily have the same impact on them. One way to approach this is something that the author herself did. She gave each of her five kids a personal photo album and every so often she would send them a stack of photographs that she wanted them to have. It was then up to them to decide which ones they wanted to keep in their albums. It works well and functions as a two-step process of cleaning up and letting go. First, you let go of the photographs you no longer want to keep and they further get rid of whatever they don’t want to keep leaving only the most significant behind. 

When you are going through photos there are some simple things you need to remember. Firstly, get rid of any duplicates or copies of photographs. Next, if you can’t name the people in the photograph, throw it away. If your loved ones want to make copies, they can do so, you don’t have to keep multiples. And if you don’t know who is in the photos, the chance that they do is highly unlikely.

You can also consider digitizing photographs in order to get rid of clutter and keep them all on a single small device. That way your loved ones can have access to them and make copies if need be.

Key lesson five: How to discuss the topic of death cleaning with your family

Sometimes, it is not you that has to do the death cleaning but your family members. Trying to tell someone you love that they should sort out their possessions can be extremely difficult. Especially as a child talking to your elderly parent. As people get older, they might not take kindly to you insinuating that they need to sort out their things before they die. But it is best to approach the matter honestly and with a bit of creativity. 

You can start with simple questions like, “Have you considered if you need this when you are on your own?” or “Can I help you sort through this now so that you won’t have to do it all yourself later?”. If they are not receptive to the idea, just give them some time and try again by rephrasing the subject. We all know what our loved ones will be motivated by so use this to your advantage. Be creative in how you get them to start warming up to the idea of beginning to clear up. Maybe suggest they could have more space, or they could think of it as preparation when they have to move to a smaller place or just the simplicity of having fewer things to clean. 

The key takeaway from The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning is:

Döstadning or death cleaning is a helpful Swedish practice that everyone should consider. It will not only make your life easier but will also benefit your loved ones after you have passed. Possessions are personal, sentimental and are often difficult to go through, but if you start early enough, you can do so at a comfortable pace and save yourself and your loved ones the hassle later on. You may think it sounds like a lot of work but it can actually turn out to be a wonderful process.

How can I implement the lessons learned from The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning:

Don’t wait until you are old and sick to start. The general recommendation is that you start no later than the age of 65. This makes the entire process easier to deal with at a leisurely pace. But this doesn’t mean you should wait until you’re 65 to start. This process can begin at any time of your life. It’s all about staying organized and not keeping things unneccessarily.

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