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North Hills Monthly

Swedish Death Cleaning Becoming a Trend in the U.S.

Feb 29, 2020 10:51AM ● By Kathleen Ganster

Kristen Bjorklund

Swedish death cleaning. 

The name sounds rather ominous, but it is a movement gaining traction in the U.S. Based on the Swedish philosophy that less is better, death cleaning is the act of ridding your life of items that have limited meaning to the owner or to those who may inherit them. In Sweden there is even a word for it—dostadning: “do” meaning death, and “stadning” meaning cleaning.

Kristen Bjorklund of Pittsburgh’s Morningside neighborhood started death cleaning before she knew what it was called. Now in her early 70s, a few years ago, she looked at her three-bedroom house and decided that it was time to get rid of some things.  

“I thought it would be good to try to pare down while there was no crisis or deadline looming,” Bjorklund explained.

Starting with her office, she began sorting files and papers, deciding what was necessary, what could be disposed of and what her two grown daughters may need or want in the future.

“I realized I was holding on to too much,” she said. 

One day while volunteering at the Cooper Siegel Community Library, she was handed the book The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning by Margareta Magnusson. “It is a very easy read and brings humor to cleaning,” Bjorklund said. “It really looks at decluttering in a different way.”

The book also helps the reader examine other aspects of their lives to help them face their own mortality. Even though the book suggests that everyone should undergo this necessary task at age 65, it isn’t just for the elderly. 

“Anyone can start cleaning; it helps you look at the fact that you don’t need to keep acquiring things, and the earlier you start, you can do it slowly and with thought,” Bjorklund said. 

Taking time to look at belongings also provides the opportunity to have discussions with loved ones about those objects, sharing memories and determining what to keep and what to lose.

Those conversations are one reason Julia Gongaware began encouraging her parents to begin the death cleaning process. 

“My dad is a collector of many things. As I've aged, I've realized how absolutely magical his interests are and have seen these items less as junk and more as pieces of him,” she said. 

“I want to appreciate his collection with him and learn about the history before it's too late,” she continued. “I want to know the stories and go through the stuff with him and my mom to learn about them, about our family, and about myself while we can.”

Gongaware learned of death cleaning while researching the Scandinavian culture. “I just happened to come upon several articles about death cleaning and it piqued my interest,” she said. 

Gongaware admittedly has other reasons for encouraging her parents to begin the process. “Being the oldest in my family, I know that a lot of the burden will fall to me when one of my parents dies,” she said. “I don't want to see at it as a burden. I want to see as a part of us. A part of our history.” 

Death cleaning has helped Bjorklund look at the belongings that she has in a whole new light. As she pares down, donating many items to local thrift stores, the library and other places, she said that she doesn’t purchase new items as quickly.

“I look at it and ask, ‘Do I really need this?’ More often than not, I put it back,” she said. 

Even though Gongaware is only in her 30s, it has also changed her viewpoint on material objects. 

“I have started to buy high-quality things; to have more heirloom pieces that I know have value to me,” she said. “I'll easily be able to share their value with my loved ones.”

Tips for Swedish Death Cleaning

Death cleaning—or any cleaning for that matter—can quickly become overwhelming. Here are a few tips from The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning and Kristen Bjorklund:

1. Don’t start with photographs: “This is something suggested in the book because you will get so lost in the photos that you won't make any progress. Save them for last,” Bjorklund said. 

2. Have discussions with family members and loved ones about items so that they can learn the stories behind them. Then you can determine whether to hold on to them, pass them on, or keep them for the time being. “Create a box of items that are okay for your family to dispose of once you are gone. These are items that may mean a lot to you, but not to anyone else. Your family will know that they can pass them on without feeling guilty,” Bjorklund said.

3. Sort items into three categories: Items to definitely keep, those to definitely get rid of and those you have to think about. “The first two are easy, but the items that you can’t decide about make it hard. You may have to sort and then sort again,” said Bjorklund.

4. If there are items that were a “secret,” then get rid of them now while you still can, The Gentle Art suggests. After you are gone, someone will discover this information or item.

5. Take your time and do it slowly and thoughtfully, but do it, Bjorklund said.

6. When you can, pass items on for reuse and repurposing. As a library volunteer, Bjorklund donated many books to their book sale and free shelves. “Reuse, recycle and repurpose,” she reminded.