“Death Cleaning” Is the Answer to Clutter You’ve Been Looking for

There's a new way to de-clutter and it's not nearly as scary as its name sounds.

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“Death cleaning” is a Swedish phenomenon in which elderly people (sometimes with the help of family) set their affairs in order, sometimes for the purpose of transitioning to assisted living—here are some tips on that life stage—and sometimes just to make life simpler, no matter what your age. If you need help on decluttering, check out these tips. And don’t be put off by the morbid-sounding title: It’s the topic of a soon-to-be-released book called The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning, in which author and artist Margareta Magnusson instructs readers on how to gently and joyously put your affairs in order while you’re still alive, rather than leaving it for others to do.

“The rules of death cleaning are simple,” explains Jasmine Hobbs, a cleaning expert at London Cleaning Team. “It’s all about losing everything you don’t love or use. And not being afraid to talk about it.” One way to become less afraid is to understand that death cleaning is not reserved for the elderly, despite its name. “Anyone can do it at any age. The idea is to organize your life and make it run smoother.”

At the core of death cleaning is minimalism, but the process can also be an opportunity to embrace nostalgia, says Lorne Caplan, founder of Free Home Cleanup, which provides death-cleaning-type services in Westchester County, New York. “Doing this sort of work should be looked at as a walk through history. When it does involve the elderly, it can be an opportunity to learn valuable stories from the one whose life is on the way out.”

Very often, however, the challenge is in initiating the process, according to Caplan. Caplan has noticed that, unlike the Swedes and Europeans in general, Americans can be quite squeamish about discussing death. “The first time many Americans discuss death is when they are burying a loved one,” he says. Therefore, if your goal is to initiate the process with an elderly parent or friend, begin gently. “Start by reminiscing. Take out old photos,” Caplan suggests. “Ask about the trips they’ve taken or the people in the photos.” Slowly, from there, you can begin to work in questions, pointing to things and asking, “What’s this? Do you still use this? How do you feel about this?” Gradually, you can make your way towards suggesting, “Perhaps it’s time to part with this?” or “So, someday, is there someone you’d like to have this?”

Although Caplan’s subtlety may differ from Magnusson’s more direct approach, Caplan supports the essence of Magnusson’s message having cleaned out, inventoried and disposed of the belongings of nearly a dozen homes this year. He points out how hard it can be on the friends and family who are left behind to figure out what to do with all of the material possessions that a deceased loved one has accumulated. Often these include items that may have held some nostalgia for the departed person, but which have no value for anyone, even as a charitable donation. “Thimbles, post cards, China cups, records, boxes, empty bottles that once held soda,” Caplan lists as examples. “It would have been so much better if these things had become the subject of a loving, nostalgic story and then carefully given away or otherwise dispensed with, rather than becoming what ends up amounting to meaningless garbage after the person is gone.”

Got questions about caring for an elderly loved one? Here’s a crash course on senior care.

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