Swedish Death Cleaning: Decluttering Necessity from Austin Estate Planning Attorney Liz Nielsen

Swedish Death Cleaning

How much stuff is too much? Most Americans would probably admit that they own too many things. From clothes to electronics to sports equipment to collectibles, the typical US house is stuffed to the brim with items of questionable utility. On occasion, we may commit to decluttering, only to get overwhelmed or distracted. Meanwhile, the stuff keeps piling up. But at some point, it is necessary to deal with everything we have accumulated over our lifetime. If you do not declutter your house, somebody else will have to do it when you die. This is part of the thinking behind Swedish death cleaning, a morbid-sounding practice that is actually quite liberating, both for ourselves and our loved ones.

The Psychology of Materialism

The average American home contains 300,000 items.[1] By any measure, that is a lot of stuff. “The things we own end up owning us” is a quote from the movie Fight Club, which touches on how materialism negatively affects us. Research shows that buying more stuff does not make us happy. In fact, the opposite appears to be true. A series of experiments by psychology professor Tim Kasser found that materialism is negatively correlated with well-being.[2]

Research also shows that 84 percent of Americans worry that their homes are not organized or clean enough.[3] And 55 percent of them say the disorder is a major cause of stress.[4] Acquiring things triggers reward pathways in the brain that make us feel good. Shopping or receiving a gift—or enjoying a sweet, fattening treat—delivers a dopamine hit that reinforces a cognitive pattern to want more. But in the long term, acquisitiveness can make us feel bad just like eating bad foods can.

Minimalism, Tidying Up, and Death Cleaning

Counterbalancing the American tendency toward materialism is the minimalist lifestyle trend. Minimalism dates back to an avant-garde art movement that began in 1960s New York.[5] As a way of life, minimalism emphasizes living with less and being happy with what you already have. Minimalist living went mainstream with the 2010 publication of Marie Kondo’s New York Times bestselling book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. It produced the KonMari method of inventorying all of one’s belongings and then keeping only those things that “spark joy.”

The successors to the minimalist movement can be seen in Americans—the millennial generation in particular,—who have embraced tiny homes, #VanLife, and spending money on good times, not stuff. Seventy-eight percent of millennials, compared to 59 percent of baby boomers, say they “would rather pay for an experience than material goods.[6] Millennials recently overtook baby boomers as the country’s largest living generation.[7] But it is boomers who are the target of the latest chapter in minimalism: Swedish death cleaning.

A popular concept in Swedish and Scandinavian culture, Swedish death cleaning was introduced to an American audience with the 2017 release of The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Free Yourself and Your Family from a Lifetime of Clutter.[8] In the book, author Margareta Magnusson urges those 65 and older to take part in the practice, which comes from the Swedish word döstädning, a combination of (death) and standing (cleaning). “Visit storage areas and start pulling out what’s there,” Magnusson writes in the book. “Who do you think will take care of all that when you are no longer here?”[9]

The Benefits of Swedish Death Cleaning

The primary goal of Swedish death cleaning is to spare loved ones the burden of clearing out our stuff when we die. “Some people can’t wrap their heads around death,” says Magnusson. “And these people leave a mess after them. Did they think they were immortal?”

Magnusson recommends categorizing possessions by those you can easily get rid of, such as clothes you no longer wear, unwanted gifts, and excess kitchen items, and those you might want to keep, like old letters, photographs, and your children’s artwork. You might consider starting in the attic or basement, where excess items tend to accumulate, choosing belongings you do not have an emotional attachment to and moving from large items to small items.

Magnusson, though, does not emphasize a rigorous approach or definitive checklist. She encourages readers to develop their own method and focus on personal goals for Swedish death cleaning. It is a highly personal exercise that is intended to be uplifting rather than daunting. Throughout the book, she reiterates the personal benefits of death cleaning, calling it a “permanent form of organization that makes your everyday life run more smoothly.” And she adds that you might even find the process itself enjoyable. “It is a delight to go through things and remember their worth,” Magnusson writes.

Your loved ones, however, may not understand why you would want to undertake something called “death cleaning,” even though it benefits them. Especially if you are still in good health, it might disturb them that you are systematically eliminating stuff from your life in anticipation of dying. According to Magnusson, death cleaning is an important reminder about the impermanent nature of all things, ourselves included. “We must all talk about death,” she writes. “If it’s too hard to address, then death cleaning can be a way to start the conversation.”

There might also be items your friends and family would rather inherit than see you get rid of. Inviting them to take part in your decluttering journey could make the process go smoother. Together, you can sort through things and reflect on the memories they spark. If they want something, let them have it. Along the way, they may develop an appreciation for minimalism and decluttering. They might even decide to undertake their own death cleaning and receive a wellness boost that becomes part of your legacy.

Death Cleaning and Estate Planning

Estate planning, like death cleaning, makes life easier for our loved ones after we die. An estate plan leaves nothing to chance. It creates a written record of your final wishes that minimizes court involvement and eliminates questions about what you would have wanted. We cannot help you with death cleaning. But we can help you create an estate plan that simplifies asset disposition for your heirs and gives you peace of mind. To get your plans in order, schedule a meeting with our attorneys. Nielsen Law PLLC provides family-focused estate and business planning to individuals and families in Austin, Round Rock, Cedar Park, and the Central Texas area.  For more information, and to learn about our firm, please contact us. We look forward to working with you.

[1] Mary Macvean, For Many People, Gathering Possessions Is Just the Stuff of Life, L.A. Times (Mar. 21, 2014), https://www.latimes.com/health/la-xpm-2014-mar-21-la-he-keeping-stuff-20140322-story.html.

[2] Professor Kasser on Materialism and the Holidays, Knox College, https://www.knox.edu/news/professor-kasser-on-materialism-and-the-holidays (last visited Sept. 29, 2023).

[3] Home Organization Is Major Source of Stress for Americans, Survey Finds, Huffpost (May 22, 2013), https://www.huffpost.com/entry/home-organization-stress-survey_n_3308575.

[4] Id.

[5] Kyle Chayka, The Empty Promises of Marie Kondo and the Craze for Minimalism, Guardian (Jan.3, 2020), https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2020/jan/03/empty-promises-marie-kondo-craze-for-minimalism.

[6] Sofia Horta e Costa, Millennials Are Starting to Change the Stock Market, Bloomberg (Jan. 31, 2016), https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-02-01/millennial-splurge-on-lifegoals-giving-leisure-stocks-a-boost.

[7] Richard Fry, Millennials Overtake Baby Boomers as America’s Largest Generation, Pew Rsch. Ctr. (Apr. 28, 2020), https://www.pewresearch.org/short-reads/2020/04/28/millennials-overtake-baby-boomers-as-americas-largest-generation/.

[8] Margareta Magnusson, The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Free Yourself and Your Family from a Lifetime of Clutter (int’l ed. 2018).

[9] Sarah DiGiulio, What Is ‘Swedish Death Cleaning’ and Should You Be Doing It?, NBC News (Nov. 2, 2017), https://www.nbcnews.com/better/health/what-swedish-death-cleaning-should-you-be-doing-it-ncna816511.