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A cleanse before dying: The morbid, practical art of Swedish death cleaning

Forum columnist Tammy Swift says despite its slightly macabre title, Margareta Magnusson's wise and practical book, "The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning," urges us to declutter not only because it will make our own lives better, but because it will help our loved ones, too.

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For the last two weeks, I've been in the throes of purging, dusting and mopping as if the Grim Reaper is my supervisor.

In short, I've been cleaning as if my life — or maybe the end of my life — depended on it.

Do not be alarmed.

I am (hopefully) a long way from my actual expiration date.

But I recently stumbled across a YouTube video on this very real phenomenon, rooted in Scandinavian tradition and based on a book, "The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning," by Margareta Magnusson. Magnusson, a Swedish artist who is "somewhere between 80 and 100," wrote the book after finding herself immersed in döstädning (that's for "death” and städning for “cleaning") following the deaths of her parents and husband.


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Margareta Magnusson's book, "The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning." Photo courtesy of Simon & Schuster / Special to The Forum

Granted, the book doesn't have the tidy, sunny charm of Marie Kondo's bestseller, "The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up." (Leave it to the Scandihoovians to inject a bit of Ingmar Bergman into a home-organization book.)

Despite its macabre title, "The Gentle Art" is unexpectedly sweet and quirky, revealing Magnusson's no-nonsense language and practical wisdom. Throughout, she shares a message: We don't only declutter to make our own lives better, but to ease the burdens on those we leave behind.

Magnusson's theories could be practiced by a person of any age who wants to simplify their life. But she especially urges those in their 50s and 60s to do so. It's the stage of life after which the breakneck pace of raising children and establishing careers has slowed, yet we are still young and healthy enough to dig into a large and ambitious project. This is also a time when it can feel rewarding to go through one's belongings and celebrate all we've accomplished.

I found myself comparing the book to Kondo's seminal work. Much like the celebrated organizer, Magnusson's approach is tackled space by space, room by room and item by item. For instance, she helps suggest the types of items we can get rid of (clothes that no longer fit, unwanted presents, dishes) and what we might want to hang onto (photographs, special letters, a few of our kids' craft projects).


But unlike Kondo, Magnusson views home organization as a benevolent gift — a way we can make life less painful and overwhelming for surviving family. "A loved one wishes to inherit nice things from you," she reminds us. "Not all things from you."

Among some of my favorite Magnusson observations:

  • Do you want to be remembered as Mother Teresa... or Bridget Jones?: When deciding whether to save all those tormented 20-something journals or torrid letters from an old college boyfriend, ask yourself if they are really something you want to leave behind for a family member to discover. If an item seems like something that could shock or embarrass family members, ask yourself if this is how you'd like kids and grandkids to remember you.

  • Pass items with intention: Magnusson shared how she went through her home, identified an item, and thought about who she could pass it on to. For instance, she gave her husband’s tools to young men looking to build their own tool collections.
  • Abundance is nice. Overabundance is burden: We accumulate stuff because we like the feel of abundance, but after a while, the abundance grows so, er, abundant that we don't even appreciate it. And once collections become hoarding, chances are good that the items our loved ones would most treasure will get so lost in the chaos that they'll wind up in a dumpster.
  • A bowl on the coffee table is worth 20 in the attic: We may refuse to part with a huge set of china because they were given to us by a beloved grandmother or friend. But we aren't honoring those things if we're storing them in dusty boxes in the attic. When possible, find a way to use or display those mementos so that they trigger happy thoughts whenever we see them.
  • Your treasures may be someone else's trash: The Christian Science Monitor reported in July that children of Baby Boomers aren’t itching to take possession of their parents’ home furnishings . In fact, they’d rather not. It’s not only that children don’t want their parents’ possessions, it’s that there’s not a market for those old mahogany furniture pieces. It may even cost them extra to get rid of it. So don't be afraid to have those conversations with your kids about what they'd most like, versus assuming they will want everything.

One of the most important questions to ask: Will anyone be happier if I save this? And then truly listen to what your inner Magnusson tells you.
Don't worry.

She's in there, fighting with your inner Kondo on how to fold your socks.

Tammy has been a storyteller most of her life. Before she learned the alphabet, she told stories by drawing pictures and then dictated the narrative to her ever-patient mother. A graduate of North Dakota State University, she has worked as a Dickinson, N.D., bureau reporter, a Bismarck Tribune feature writer/columnist, a Forum feature reporter, columnist and editor, a writer in NDSU's Publications Services, a marketing/social media specialist, an education associate in public broadcasting and a communications specialist at a nonprofit.
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