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I first began the practice of Swedish Death Cleaning years before I even knew there was a name for it. In my early twenties, I was living in Paris and had planned to meet up with a friend in Cologne and from there drive up to Berlin. For whatever reason, I became fixated on the idea that the Autobahn would be the end of me. Imagining the high speeds (and his tiny Toyota Yaris riding beside faster and sturdier German-made vehicles), my anxious mind thought this could be it. Just before the trip, I tidied up my small and admittedly disheveled Parisian studio apartment, organizing the few important documents and tossing anything I'd rather not burden my parents with if my apprehensions became a reality. Ultimately, I survived the Autobahn (twice) and made it back to my apartment in one piece, grateful to be safe and return to my organized home.
I'm messy by nature and require discipline to routinely keep my space tidy. I've gotten better with age, but when my closet begins to overflow, I adopt the same mindset I had pre-Berlin to tackle time-consuming and daunting decluttering projects. It was only a couple of years ago, when a certain book came out, that I learned there's a name for this practice, the Swedish word döstädning—dö means "death" and städning means "cleaning." It sounds grim, but it's actually a super-effective way to minimize your material items and keep everything in order. In an age when minimalism is the favored aesthetic and everyone's given the Konmari method a go, Swedish Death Cleaning is as timely as ever.
It Streamlines Belongings For You (and Your Loved Ones)
Margareta Magnussen writes about the practice in her 2017 book, The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning. Similar to what I did instinctively before my trip to Berlin, the goal of Swedish Death Cleaning is to make the process of going through your belongings easier for your family members after you've passed. Morbid, I know, but it makes a lot of sense. If you've streamlined what you own down to the essentials and organize them in a space that's easy to navigate, you relieve loved ones going through all of your things during an already difficult time.
It Improves Your Mental Health
Sure, the approach is based on what will happen if you die, but the real benefits are reaped in the present. When you declutter, there are so many things you'll be able to better enjoy right now. You'll save time getting ready because your belongings are organized. You'll feel happier, clearer-minded, and less stressed in a clean space. And you'll have fewer material objects to worry about. It's quite liberating. I've found I have difficulty focusing when my computer desktop is cluttered with files, and I'm on edge when my bathroom or dresser drawers are filled to the brim. Keeping everything in check with the Swedish Death Cleaning mindset feels like a periodic detox from the minutiae, reminds me that I already have everything I need, and makes me appreciate that I'm able to experience every minute of life.
It Demonstrates What Really Matters
Much like Marie Kondo's practice of asking if something "sparks joy," this approach to decluttering also helps assign value to every item you own—encouraging you to determine what's most important and what you can live without. It also makes us confront who we are and how we see ourselves. How do our homes and belongings reflect our lives? Most importantly, it reminds us of the impermanence of everything—especially material objects—and that things really are just things after we're gone. Even though the overarching premise is positioned around a sensitive topic, Magnussen teaches us the art in an uplifting and empowering way. Death is inevitable, so the sooner we can begin creating spaces and choosing belongings with intention, we can live a more liberated, meaningful life.