Home » Lessons from Swedish Death Cleaning

Lessons from Swedish Death Cleaning

It began with the fires. Then it continued because Covid-19 continues. Then anxiety around my scans added a level of intensity to the exercise. I am talking about “Döstädning” or Swedish Death Cleaning. Have you heard of it? 

I’ve purged my stuff before, following Marie Kondo’s advice to keep only objects that “spark joy.” But it often seems more complicated. What if the object sparks nostalgia? Or gratitude? Or is part of my identity? Maybe it is time for a new cleaning idea. Hence, “Swedish Death Cleaning.” 

The Swedes are so practical. Margareta Magnussen, the author of The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning says, “I am between 80 and 100 years old…Death cleaning is not about dusting or mopping up; it is about a permanent form of organization that makes your everyday life run more smoothly.” She finds joy in giving things away and is committed to not leave a mess for her children to have to clean up after she passes.

What if I tame my closets as a way to prepare for death? And also update our wills and get our finances in order? It’s not as dark or as sad as it sounds. It’s completely liberating. 

Let me be clear: I am not planning on dying soon. Quite the opposite. I am treasuring my life more than ever. It’s just that every three months, I spend four hours inside MRI machines, getting scanned from head to toe to see how the tumors in my skull and on my spine are doing. Then I wait about two weeks for my doctors to find a coordinated time when they can discuss the results with me. While I wait, I am forced to face my mortality. 

What if we all intentionally faced our mortality? Could it make us live better now?

Swedish death cleaning is one way to start. Here’s what happened yesterday. I was getting rid of things I had accumulated and making piles. Piles of things to donate, some to sell, and some to add to the landfill. Then I came across running medals that I earned winning races. I took them down from the wall in the laundry room, and put them in the “landfill” pile. Then I pulled them out of the pile and put them back on the wall. I took them off the wall again, and wondered if they should be donated. Who could use old medals? I decided that only I could, and put them back on the wall again. 

What the heck was going on? Why was it so hard to let them go? They were dusty and covered in cobwebs. I rarely looked at the medals and no one else saw them next to the washing machine. My choice was to move them somewhere more visible, leave them where they were, or get rid of them. I didn’t think I cared about the medals, and I knew I didn’t want to display them more prominently, so it seemed obvious that I needed to let them go. But I couldn’t do it.  

What was I afraid of? Did I think I would forget that I won those races? Or that my children, after I’m gone, might not remember what I had accomplished? The medals were triggering an array of emotions that caught me by surprise. This simple exercise was forcing me to reckon with my death and the death of my identity as an athlete and a champion. There is a difference between intellectually understanding that no one or nothing lasts forever and actually processing the feelings around that fact. When it comes down to it, letting go is really hard. 

The only thing we can count on is that we are going to die. Why don’t we have a ritual to teach us about how to die with grace? Or how to face the loss of someone we love? Or how to let go of parts of our identity, so that we can move on? 

Western traditions are about adding or acquiring things on our birthdays and holidays. Where is the holiday that is about letting go? 

The Buddhists say. “The more you let go, the more you can receive.” Being forced to face death is difficult, but it also roots me strongly to what really matters: relationships and experiences. With fewer things to have to put away, I find I have more time and less stress. Last night, instead of tidying up after dinner, the kids and I made chocolate fondue and played cards.

I confess. I kept a few medals. I thanked the others and let them go. But having to make the choice helped me to see something important. I may no longer be competing in races, but running has given me discipline, endurance, and life-long friendships. I don’t need to fear letting that part go. I’ve integrated running into who I am. 

Let me know what time of year you think we should have a holiday about letting go. What would we do and what food would we eat? What would we call it? “Swedish Death Cleaning Holiday” doesn’t have the best ring to it. I am open to ideas. These days I’m open to everything that allows us to go deep into life.