The 6 basic principles of death cleaning

If you found true joy in Marie Kondo’s decluttering tactics, then it’s very likely that you’ll fall in love with Margareta Magnusson’s new book “The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning”. Whilst the title might be a bit off putting, this system is much more focused on the “gentle” side, rather than the “death”.

Death cleaning it’s what Swedish people do when they retire or slow down their working lives and, therefore, have more free time to deal with all the possessions they have accumulated over their lifetime. It’s about getting rid of the stuff they don’t need, so that their descendants don’t have to deal with it all. In the author’s own words “it is a term that means removing unnecessary things and making your home nice and orderly when you think the time is coming closer for you to leave the planet.”

Margareta Magnusson is a Swedish artist “between her 80th and 100th birthdays”, who studied at the Beckman College of Design. Mother of 5, she lived all over the world from Singapore to Hong Kong. This is her debut book and it’s already a New York Times Bestseller.

Here are my top 6 lessons from the book, although I would recommend getting a copy, reading it and then pass it on to someone who might also benefit from it.

1.     It’s not sad

Simplifying your life and making your day to day easier should never be considered sad. Margareta has a wickedly dry sense of humour, so by reading her book you’re most likely to approach the whole process from a lighter perspective.

She also takes pragmatism to its most sublime when she writes things like “Some people can’t get their heads around death. And these people leave a mess after them. Did they think they were immortal?”


2.     Be gentle

Having said that, it’s also important to recognise that this won’t be the most fun task you’ve ever done. It’s important to be really kind to yourself throughout the process.

You will also find that the more you do it, the easier it will become and the less time it will take. The “practice makes perfect” principle applies seamlessly in this instance.


3.     No time to rush

Unlike Kondo, Margareta’s approach relies on taking time to go over all your things and decide what to do with them. This is more of a slow journey done over a long period of time. This means that you can do it at your own pace and think well about what you want to do with the things you have. You can distribute within your family and friends if you’re downsizing. Or, for thing you are keeping, you can put labels with instructions so that people know what to do with them when you’re no longer here.

Another important aspects is that death cleaning is a state of mind. You don’t have to wait until you’re 65 to start. The sooner you start the easier it will be. If you are feeling overwhelmed with all the things you have this a practice that you can start now, independently of your age.


4.     Think legacy

One thought that might help you throughout is that death cleaning will make life so much easier for your loved ones. By discarding your things and taking full responsibility of what you own, you will not only feel empowered, but also you will be only leaving good memories and valuable references for your family. Grieving is painful enough already, so anything we can do to make it better will be highly appreciated.

Margareta has done a lot of death cleaning for her family and her testimonials of those experiences are helpful to understand the importance of this practice.

The main question to keep asking yourself whilst death cleaning is “Will this object give happiness to anyone I know?”.


5.     Leave the best for last

As with Kondo, the way to go here is starting with the things that will be easier to let go of. Kitchen is a good place to start. You probably will have more plates than you need, duplicates and gadgets you rarely use. These are all good to donate.

“You may even have forgotten what it is you have there. Good for you, because you will now realize that you will not miss anything if you throw it away.”

Photos, personal letters and other memoirs should be saved for last. Margareta’s rule of thumb is to shred photos if you don’t know the name of the people in there. Also, she has scanned photos from her different children, saved them in a memory stick and gave them each one for Christmas. Isn’t that a wonderful idea?


6.     Tell

Finally, it’s good to be upfront about it and let people around you know what you are doing and why. It will be easier to get the help you need and also to find new homes for your discarded objects. It’s also a good way to share fond memories associated with some of these objects and an object with a story to tell always has that special value.

Photo: Margareta Magnusson by Alexander Mahmoud