WORD: DöstädningA Swedish solution to the mess of death.

WORD: DöstädningA Swedish solution to the mess of death.

  • Words Rosalind Jana
  • Photograph Julien Vallon

Other organizational methods popularized in recent years include the FlyLady method (declutter in short bursts, using a timer), the Peter Walsh method (remove everything from the room first) and the Colleen Madsen method (remove one thing a day for 365 days).

Etymology: In 2018, author and artist Margareta Magnusson hit The New York Times bestseller list with her book The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning. Although it might sound like a service performed at a Stockholm crime scene, death cleaning, or “döstädning” in Swedish, actually refers to the art of decluttering prior to one’s own demise. The word is a simple portmanteau, coined by Magnusson, of “dö” (death) and “städning” (cleaning). It takes its place alongside a myriad of other systems—the KonMari Method most famous among them—that promise to turn the arduous task of getting rid of stuff into a streamlined process.1

Meaning: Although the word may have been brought to the mainstream by Magnusson, it refers to a culturally established practice of sorting and downsizing that also serves as a form of legacy-shaping. Anyone who has ever cleared out an elderly relative’s house after their death is acutely aware of the literal and symbolic weight of things left behind. Whether endless photo albums or closets holding the intimate remnants of a life—from kitchen pans to bags full of mysterious wires—such clearances often demand huge amounts of time and decision-making (and trips to Goodwill with donations). 

Magnusson’s method encourages a forward-thinking approach to our accumulated possessions. She suggests that instead of shying away from death, we engage with it forthrightly: choosing the objects we actively want to pass on to friends and family, and those that would be better to say goodbye to now. It’s a win-win situation. You get all the satisfaction of paring back your life, sifting through important memories and focusing on the things you really value, while loved ones will be grateful to avoid the posthumous sorting of your baseball card collection. It may even help you come to grips with some of the natural fears and anxieties surrounding mortality. 

Although Magnusson recommends this approach for those who are at a stage of life where death is getting closer, it can be a clarifying method for anyone who wants to thoughtfully winnow the contents of their home. Magnusson’s practical steps include first tackling items that are stored out of sight (boxes stashed in an attic, for example), ditching anything that might be hurtful to discover, slowly regifting precious things while you’re alive, keeping a list of passwords for family to access important data and saving photos, letters and other sentimental items until last so you can process them properly. 

Other organizational methods popularized in recent years include the FlyLady method (declutter in short bursts, using a timer), the Peter Walsh method (remove everything from the room first) and the Colleen Madsen method (remove one thing a day for 365 days).

You are reading a complimentary story from Issue 47

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