What is 'Swedish death cleaning' and should you be doing it?
Marie Kondo asked us to part with anything that didn’t spark joy when we touched it. The Bullet Journal turned scrapbooking into an organization system. So it’s not out of the realm of possibilities that one of these days you’ll find yourself partaking in a new cleaning exercise designed to essentially help you prepare for death.
No, it’s not as morbid as it sounds. It’s actually quite practical.
Once you reach the end of middle age (or sooner if you feel like it, or later if you’re late to the exercise), you get rid of all the stuff you’ve accumulated that you don’t need anymore — so that no one else has to do it for you after you pass. That’s according to Margareta Magnusson, author of the new book, "The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Make Your Loved Ones’ Lives Easier and Your On Life More Pleasant," which releases in the U.S. in January.
“Visit [your] storage areas and start pulling out what’s there,” she writes in the book. “Who do you think will take care of all that when you are no longer here?”
Plus, you’ll be able to better enjoy your life when you have less mess and clutter to deal with.
“Life will become more pleasant and comfortable if we get rid of some of the abundance,” Magnusson writes. “Mess is an unnecessary source of irritation.”
In Swedish, the exercise is döstädning — a combination of the word “dö” (which means death) and “standing” (which means cleaning), she explains in the book.
“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 explains. And you may even find the process itself enjoyable, she adds. “It is a delight to go through things and remember their worth.”
Magnusson was born in Sweden and describes herself as “aged between 80 and 100.” Although she’s lived elsewhere, she currently resides back in the Scandinavian country in a two-room apartment in Stockholm. She’s cleaned out the homes of parents, in-laws and friends, after they passed, as well as the home she shared with her husband after he died. And though the Swede reiterates throughout the book the benefits you’ll feel after death cleaning, she stresses, it’s about doing a favor for those who survive you, too.
“Some people can’t wrap their heads around death. And these people leave a mess after them. Did they think they were immortal?” she writes.
The benefit of death cleaning to your loved ones who won’t have to do it for you is fairly straightforward. But what about the happiness and enjoyment on your end? Psychology and sociology offer some interesting reasons why going through our possessions, paring down and cleaning out really can be helpful — and why it really might be prudent to not wait too long before jumping on the trend.
WHY SWEDISH DEATH CLEANING COULD CHANGE YOUR LIFE
1. IT MIGHT MAKE YOU HAPPIER.
“Swedish death cleaning” fits into the minimalism movement, explains Rosellina Ferraro, PhD, Associate Professor of Marketing at the Robert H. Smith School of Business at University of Maryland. People may be drawn to it for the same reasons people decide to live in tiny houses or hire a professional organizer. “If you pare down, the argument is that you can better focus on the really important things in life,” says Ferraro, whose research focuses on consumer behavior and psychology.
Psychologically minimalism is based on the idea that happiness doesn’t come from stuff, but rather from relationships and experiences. So when you get rid of the excess stuff surrounding you, you can better identify on those things that are really important to you and what brings you pleasure in your life, Ferraro tells NBC News BETTER.
Studies have actually shown people who are more focused on materialistic pursuits — like getting rich and buying stuff — are at higher risk of becoming unhappy, anxious, having low self-esteem and even developing problems with intimacy.
It makes intuitive sense, Ferraro adds. All of the products available and opportunity to acquire stuff in today’s world can be overwhelming, she says. “The idea of de-cluttering and streamlining our lives resonates because it may feel like it pushes back against this crazy chaotic world we live in.”
2. IT MIGHT HELP YOU FEEL LESS STRESSED AND OVERWHELMED — AND GET MORE DONE.
Another argument for embracing your inner Scandinavian Cinderella? You may find yourself less stressed and more focused once you’re living in a clean, organized space. Having fewer things to worry about really can make life seem more manageable, from the practical chores you do on a day-to-day basis to the big projects and problems you face, explains psychotherapist Amy Morin, LCSW, a lecturer at Northeastern University and author of "13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do."
“When there is less chaos on the outside, we’re likely to feel less chaos on the inside,” she says.
Multiple studies link clutter with stress and decreased productivity. One study that analyzed how 60 women described their home environments found that those who considered their spaces more cluttered, unfinished, and less restful had consistently higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol and worse moods over the course of a day compared with women who described their homes as being more restorative.
Other research has found that clutter can actually make it harder for the brain to focus on a specific task (basically because the visual cortex gets distracted by the irrelevant information you take in).
3. IT MIGHT HELP YOU BETTER COPE WITH THE REALITY OF YOUR OWN MORTALITY.
“We must all talk about death. If it’s too hard to address, then death cleaning can be a way to start the conversation,” Magnusson writes in the book. And on that point, Magnusson is on to something, Morin says.
“Getting rid of items can serve as a reminder that things don’t last forever, including us,” Morin explains. Going through all of your things can serve as a reminder of who you are, how you see yourself and how you want others to see you after your death — your legacy, she adds.
Getting rid of items can serve as a reminder that things don’t last forever, including us.
Getting rid of items can serve as a reminder that things don’t last forever, including us.
Plus, there’s the practical aspect that eventually someone will need to deal with all your stuff, whether that’s you while you’re still able to — or your loved ones after you’re gone, adds David J. Ekerdt, PhD, Professor of Sociology and Gerontology in the Sociology, Life Span Institute at University of Kansas. Many people once they reach a certain age know that eventually even before they face death, they may end up having to deal with some disability that forces them to downsize or move out of their homes.
“The argument for doing [something like death cleaning] is that it makes you more nimble for these changes,” Ekerdt says.
And research from Ekerdt and his colleagues shows you’re better off cleaning and paring down sooner rather than later, as people are less and less likely to do it the older they get. “I don’t think that’s surprising because it’s so laborious to do these things. It’s physical work. It’s cognitive work. It’s emotional work,” he explains.
STILL, DÖSTÄDNING MAY NOT BE FOR EVERYONE
For some people, de-cluttering and feeling the urge to clean out is part of their personality, explains Russell Belk, PhD, Distinguished Research Professor in the Schulich School of Business at York University. “There are people that have more organized lives because they want to feel in control,” he says. “And [habits] like immediately washing the dishes after dinner are ones that give them that sense of power and control.”
Other people just don’t see the mess or view it as a problem, says Belk, who researches the meaning of possessions, collecting and materialism.
Recognizing those different personality types begs the question, is the barrage of organization trends simply celebrating one personality type and holding it up as the most virtuous way to live? “It’s an open question in my mind,” says Ekerdt.
And it’s worth acknowledging that there are a number of other ways to be happy, deal with stress and talk about death that don’t involve divesting the majority of your possessions. Currently, however, minimalism continues to be the flavor of the day.
“For a long time, there’s been a strong anti-materialism bias in our culture,” Ekerdt says. Traditionally that bias has been driven by religious values — and more recently by the environmental movement calling us to live with a “lighter footprint” on the planet, he says.
And how well we meet this societal norm is an evaluation of our values, Felk adds. The home that’s too cluttered is viewed like an unhealthy body, he explains. Being able to keep a tidy home essentially says something about how ordered, disciplined and well your home is, he says. “You could look at [this type of cleaning] as being a dietetic regimen for the home.”
But, in reality the models of the homes we see in ads and consumer magazines with a perfectionist, minimalist aesthetic can be almost unlivable, he notes. “We may aspire to that, but it’s really hard to do in practice because daily life messes it up.”
That’s not to say people with personalities that aren’t bothered by clutter wouldn’t reap the same benefits of organizing as people who are innately more motivated to do it. But, you don’t need to beat yourself up for not trying it — and give yourself flexibility if you do, adds Morin.
“While one person may not be able to maintain a plan if they feel the rules are too rigid, someone else may need strict rules to abide by in order to stick with the program,” she says.
If you’re looking to try this type of organizing and cleaning exercise, it’s important to look at what your overall goals are and then decide which steps you want to take, she suggests.
“Pushing yourself a little harder than you’re comfortable with in [terms of] getting rid of items — perhaps parting with a few more possessions than you think you can — will help most people see they can live with less,” she says. “While you might think the way you are living now is best for you, you won’t know for sure unless you try something different.”