Swedish death cleaning. On the surface, it sounds like a morbid dream — as if the Grim Reaper, fresh from a visit to the Container Store, will show up at your door with a stack of plastic bins and terrorize you into decluttering your house. The reality is far less scary.
Swedish death cleaning is an organizing practice that helps you downsize your possessions and streamline your life. Think of it as “getting your affairs in order” and shedding your excess baggage, no matter what stage of life you’re in. It might sound depressing, but it’s actually quite liberating when you approach it with the right mindset.
You can also use this concept to organize your financial information so that if something does happen to you, your spouse, or your partner, your essential account information is easy to find.
Here’s what Swedish death cleaning is all about, and how to do it.
What Is Swedish Death Cleaning?
Although it’s most often done as people begin to age, Swedish death cleaning, or “döstädning,” can and does occur at any stage of life. While Swedish death cleaning has become part of Nordic culture, the practice has only recently caught on in the United States, thanks in large part to Margareta Magnusson’s 2018 book, “The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning.” Magnusson, an artist living in Stockholm, decided to write the book after losing both her parents, her in-laws, and her husband. They left behind a lifetime of items for her and her children to sort through, and each item required a decision: Do I keep this? Donate it? Give it to family? Throw it away?
If you’ve ever been responsible for sorting through a friend or family member’s possessions after they’ve passed on, then you know how incredibly time-consuming, draining, and emotionally difficult it can be. Sometimes, the process can take a year or more, and it takes place during a time of intense grieving when it’s even more difficult to make sound decisions.
Swedish death cleaning is the process of decluttering, downsizing, and organizing all your possessions so that, when you pass away, your family doesn’t have to do it; they’re relieved of this particular burden and can spend their time and energy remembering your life and grieving what they’ve lost. Essentially, death cleaning is simply being responsible. You can’t take your things with you, so someone has to clean them up when you’re gone. Why not be considerate and do it yourself?
As you might imagine, death cleaning can be emotionally difficult for many people, especially if they begin the process toward the end of life. It’s hard enough for us to think about our own deaths and even harder to prepare for it. However, coming to terms with the inevitability of death can be a liberating experience.
That said, Swedish death cleaning is more of a state of mind than a specific organizing approach. It’s a different, and perhaps radical, way to look at the things you own. Items that are cherished or useful are either kept or given to family or friends; everything else is donated.
That’s why Swedish death cleaning resonates with so many people. The practice of decluttering and downsizing allows you to truly enjoy the items you cherish most because they’re no longer lost in a sea of clutter. It can also relieve stress because you don’t have to worry about leaving a house full of “stuff” for your family to clean up after you pass away.
Death cleaning can also be surprisingly therapeutic. In her book, Magnusson states, “[Y]ou may even find the process itself enjoyable. It is a delight to go through things and remember their worth.”
Benefits of Swedish Death Cleaning
While Swedish death cleaning is commonly done by people approaching late middle-age and older, anyone, at any stage of life, can benefit from this healthy practice. Here are the things you can enjoy from using this approach.
1. More Happiness
Swedish death cleaning can help you feel happier because you have fewer things to clean, organize, and worry about. Whether you’re just starting a family or approaching retirement, it feels good not to be surrounded by a lot of clutter. When you pare down your possessions to only what you need and love, it gives you more time for family, hobbies, and work.
2. Greater Peace of Mind
Swedish death cleaning forces you to organize your digital life, such as bank accounts, retirement accounts, and passwords. If something ever happens to you, your personal and financial legacy to your family won’t be lost.
3. Increased Focus
Clearing your clutter can also help you feel less stress when you’re home. When your home is clean and contains only items you need and love, you’re better able to concentrate on what matters.
Research backs this up. A study published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology found that women who used more tranquil words to describe their homes had lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol than women who described their homes as cluttered.
4. Less Consumption
Swedish death cleaning is not a one-time activity; it’s a continuous process of streamlining, decluttering, gifting, organizing, and donating that takes place over months or even years. Often, people find that once their home is decluttered and organized, they lose the urge to make mindless purchases or go shopping just for something to do. Swedish death cleaning can have a quick and immediate positive impact on your family budget because you might end up buying less and enjoying what you have more.
5. A Healthier Home
If you’re older and have decided to age in place, decluttering and organizing could help you stay in your home longer. Less stuff means fewer things to trip over. Fewer possessions means your home is easier and safer to clean. It can also create more room for family members to visit.
How to Death Clean Your Home
Swedish death cleaning can be incredibly liberating, no matter what stage of life you’re in. And it’s important to realize this isn’t something you’ll get done in an afternoon, a week, or even a month. It’s a practice that you do on a consistent basis, slowly getting rid of items you wouldn’t want someone else to have to deal with. Here’s how to do it.
1. Start With Big Items
In her book, Magnusson advises people to avoid going through smaller, sentimental items like letters and photographs at first. Save that for later. The best way to begin is with the big stuff: furniture.
Go through your home and look only at your furniture. What items aren’t you using on a regular basis? Is there anything you don’t like anymore that could be donated or put in a consignment shop? Does anyone in your family or social network need something you’re not currently using?
2. Go Through Your Closet
Next, go through your clothes, pull out all the items you don’t like, and put them in a pile to donate. Also get rid of anything that doesn’t fit right now and anything you haven’t worn in the past year.
3. Regift When You Can
What do you do with expensive or unique items that you’re ready to get rid of but don’t necessarily want to donate? You can gift them to family and friends. Regifting special items is a thoughtful way to pass on possessions you love and make someone else happy in return. Items such as books, china, silver, or antiques all make great gifts.
4. Ask Yourself One Important Question
As you start going through your items, you’ll invariably come across things that are hard to get rid of. Perhaps it’s a love letter from a high school sweetheart or the scarf you wore daily in college. These items are important to you because they remind you of specific and vivid memories. How can you let them go? Or, for that matter, should you?
In her book, Magnusson encourages people to ask a simple question: “Will anyone be happier if I save this?” As you go through your things, your goal is to get rid of clutter but also to regift items to friends and family that they can use or that will make them happy. If this item doesn’t do either, then it can be donated.
If an item is extremely sentimental and you’re not ready to let it go, put it in a box marked “Mementos.” This box is just for you, and you can tell family members to destroy it when you’re gone.
5. Allow Time & Space for Memories
It’s important to give yourself the time and space to honor the memories that naturally go with many of the items you’ve held onto through the years. Perhaps you still have the dress you wore to prom or the suit that helped land your first professional job.
As you sort through items, let yourself relive these memories. Magnusson advises you to spend time with each item, remember why it was special, and then let it go. This can be an enjoyable experience, not a sad one.
How to Death Clean Your Finances
If something were to happen to you, does your family know how to access your retirement accounts? Your personal bank and savings accounts? Your credit card and investment accounts? Can they even unlock your laptop if they had to? Chances are, these account numbers, passwords, and logins are scattered in different files around the house. Some of them might be stored only in your head.
The process of finding and accessing financial and digital accounts can be daunting for family members left behind after a death. That’s why you should organize and centralize this information now. While this is a fundamental part of estate planning at the end of life, it should be an essential task at any age.
Another benefit of organizing this information is that it can save time. When all your policies, logins, and passwords are in one central location, you no longer have to waste time searching for this information if you forget it.
Of course, security is a major concern when you’re putting all this sensitive information in one place. You could suffer identity theft and significant financial loss if this information is stolen in a home break-in. Once you’ve assembled this information, make sure to store it in a secure place, such as a safe bolted to the floor or a safe deposit box.
What to Assemble
It’s entirely up to you how to gather all your personal and financial information. Some people write everything down in a book, while others prefer to gather papers in a file or folder. Here’s what you need to collect.
Financial Account Information
Make a list of each bank and credit card company you do business with, along with each account number. If you have online banking set up, write down your username and password. You’ll also want to include any information about your current debts, including your mortgage, and who is carrying those debts.
If you have investments, retirement accounts, or both, include these account numbers and passwords, as well as company contact information.
Last, include a copy of your most recent tax return. This will help your family when they have to file taxes on your behalf after you’re gone.
Do you have a will? If so, it needs to go in this folder. If an attorney helped you prepare the will, include their contact information.
Life Insurance Policies
According to USA Today, as of May 2017, there is $7.1 billion in unclaimed life insurance benefits in the United States. Policies frequently go unclaimed because a person dies and family members either don’t know about the policy or don’t realize they’re listed as beneficiaries.
If you’ve purchased a life insurance policy, make sure this policy and all necessary contact information go into your folder. If you have life insurance coverage through your employer, include contact information for your HR department, as well as whatever information your family will need, such an employee ID number, to file a claim.
Are you a veteran? If so, include any military service records you have, as well as your discharge papers. These documents will prove that you’re eligible for a military funeral and will help your family claim any military benefits they’re entitled to, including military life insurance.
Include several copies of your birth, marriage, and divorce certificates, if applicable, along with your Social Security card. These documents will be essential in helping your family prove their relationship to you so that they can access and close accounts. If you have citizenship or adoption papers, include these as well.
Professional Contact Information
Professionals like your doctor, lawyer, and financial adviser know your business, and your family will likely need to talk to them after you’re gone. Make it easy by including all their contact information.
Who would you want to be notified in the event of your death: your old friends from high school, work colleagues, golfing buddies, Meetup group?
Your family likely knows some of your friends but probably not all of them. There’s a good chance that many of your friends wouldn’t be contacted if you passed simply because your family doesn’t know who they are or how to reach them. Make a list of your friends and include their addresses, email addresses, and phone numbers. You may also want to include any professional or civic groups you’re involved with, as well as where you volunteer, if applicable.
If you’re active on social media, include your username and password to each site so that family members will be able to log in and alert your friends and followers that something has happened.
Tip: If you start to get overwhelmed by the process of assembling all this information, then get help. The company Everplans provides a secure place to organize and store your personal information, as well as help and guidance along the way. You’ll also want to make sure that someone knows where all this information is stored; this could be a spouse, partner, or even your attorney.
To some, Swedish death cleaning might sound like a depressing way to spend the next few months. But it can actually be an empowering, even peaceful experience.
Your relationship to all the things in your home changes dramatically when you ask yourself, “What would my family do with all this stuff if something happened to me? How long would it take them to go through it all?” Think about them rifling through every single cabinet, drawer, and closet, having to decide on each item while deep in the grieving process. This way can be a powerful catalyst for letting clutter go for good.
I used to own a professional organizing business, and I was called in several times to help families clean and organize after the passing of a loved one. I’ve also now done it three times for my own family members. It’s heart-rending, time-consuming, and incredibly difficult. I would never wish to put my own family through such an ordeal. So, the concept of Swedish death cleaning is, to me, incredibly considerate and practical.
Would you consider Swedish death cleaning your home and finances?