Death cleaning – Do it for the people you will leave behind

Written by Amanda Lonsdale

Have you heard of Death Cleaning? It can be a bit strange, scary, or dark for many of us to talk about mortality. I’m going to make it fun and wholesome in a ‘New Years Resolution’ kind of way.

Many people around the world have their own traditions and rituals around death. Vikings were known to be buried with all of their possessions. If this was still a common practice today it has been said that we’d all need an Olympic sized swimming pool for each of our graves!

Death Cleaning became topical a few years ago when Margareta Magnusson published a book called ‘Swedish Death Cleaning’. Since I’m not Swedish, we’re going to focus on ‘generic’ Death Cleaning – but I definitely recommend the book for an interesting and quick read!

Over the last decade, I have lost many loved ones. These experiences turned my passion for minimalism into a strong awareness of death; what makes a ‘good’ death and sparked an interest in Death Cleaning. Minimalism and Death Cleaning are both similar and yet very different. The main differences are the intention, motivation, and thoroughness.

What is Death Cleaning?

Swedish culture believes in being prepared for death, they often do this type of ‘cleaning’ when someone is close to retirement age or if someone’s health starts to decline. Margareta writes in her book, “a loved one wishes to inherit nice things from you… not all things from you”.

Unlike regular decluttering you aren’t doing it just for yourself, you’re also doing it for the people you will leave behind.

Death Cleaning is a form of self-care. The object is not to sit in an empty room until you die. It is to only own things that you use and love, and to remove the excess that is weighing you down, and will weigh down your family.

If our loves ones don’t want our items right now, chances are, they won’t ever want them. If I’m feeling stuck giving something away because it was expensive, I consider this: the money has already been spent. It’s not a loss to give it away.

Death Cleaning is a process. Life moves on, our families grow up, our hobbies change, our clothes wear out and we receive gifts. Death Cleaning is a learned skill that takes time and practice. There may be some grieving along the way. We will always need to revisit Death Cleaning, but it gets easier.

Who should Death Clean?

Everyone. I’m a member of a Swedish Death Cleaning Facebook group with over 25 thousand members from all around the world. There are members as young as 20 and as old as 80, but most members are in their 50’s and 60’s. Their most common piece of advice- Start earlier! The task will only become harder as we grow older.

They say we spend the first half of our life collecting things and the second half removing them.
Many people are weighed down by trinkets that belonged to the deceased. Some of these items they don’t even like, but store out of guilt. Start having conversations with your loved ones about your possessions. Release them from holding onto anything because of your own attachment to it.

If I give someone a present, I understand that it may not stay with that person forever, once it’s theirs they are free to do what they want with it. Here’s a tip: consumable and experience gifts are wonderful!

We will all reap the benefits of Death Cleaning while we’re here, and our families will reap the benefits when we’re gone. That’s an act of love for everyone!

When should we Death Clean?

Let’s do our Death Cleaning now and get to enjoy all the benefits. Let’s learn to make empty space normal and experience living in a home that is decluttered, organised and well maintained before we die. Once I have decluttered an area or zone, I like to appreciate it and congratulate myself for responsibly taking care of my stuff.

There are designated days every year that society tells us we should bring items into our homes en masse; birthdays, Christmases etc. But no one ever tells us to get rid of our stuff. Don’t hold onto things that don’t support your best life.

Death Cleaning takes a long time and needs consistent progress. Recognise it will take a long time just like all other worthy things in life. If you don’t have the time to go through your things, what makes you think your family will have the time after you’re gone?

How do we Death Clean?

There are both physical and mental challenges when we Death Clean. Try to release the emotional responses. It’s just stuff. Remember it’s the living breathing people and pets that we love, that are most important.

It might be helpful to reach out to friends and family for support, help and encouragement. Let them know your intentions. You could also consider hiring help. When we start having these conversations with our loved ones, be aware that they may think we are dying (we all are!). Try not to assume what family will want, and not make anyone feel obligated to keep anything. If they do want something, write down where it came from and why it is special to you.

It takes multiple sweeps when decluttering, I recommend leaving your sentimental items until last. Just like muscle memory, it gets easier.

Happy tossing!

If you have any questions or want to talk about Death Cleaning, I’d love to chat! My email is: