The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning, by Margareta Magnusson: A Review

The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning was just released in the States, bringing to breaking point the number of books working off the “The [Adjective] Art/Magic/Secret of [Something Designed to Shock or Intrigue You]”. (Can we all agree that we’re sick of that now?)

Clever title aside (I’ll admit that, though the formula itself has been overdone, kudos must still go to the marketing department for this one), can the contents hold their own?


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"The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning" by Margareta Magnusson, a review

The book is based on the Swedish practice of death cleaning (though, having already spoken on the topic, several Swedish commenters professed no prior knowledge of it, so perhaps it’s more of a regional practice).

Despite the name, the author is clear that death cleaning “does not necessarily have to do with your age or death” (though she does admit that they often do); rather, it refers to “a permanent form of organisation that makes your everyday life run more smoothly”.

In contrast, the entire rest of the book does indeed focus on ageing and dying, with Ms. Magnusson recommending that you begin the process “when you think the time is coming closer for you to leave the planet.” 65, she thinks, is a good age to get going on it.

So I think it’s fair to say that, essentially, it’s death-prep decluttering.

"The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning" by Margareta Magnusson, a review | cover art

I so desperately wanted to love this book. When it opened with a Leonard Cohen quote (I’m a fan), I was sure that that had sealed the deal.

Alas, for me, that was perhaps the highlight of the entire affair (apart from a quote about dildos that I’ll share a little later).

While I appreciate the offer to “help make your loved ones’ memories of you nice––instead of awful”, I believe that leaving a lot of belongings behind doesn’t necessarily decrease the measure of a person. Memories, maybe, aren’t always mixed up in “things”.

"The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning" by Margareta Magnusson, a review | Leonard Cohen quote from The New Yorker

When I first talked about this topic, the general consensus seemed to be that decluttering is a personal process; it’s something that should be done for yourself, not for the benefit of others. And, though Ms. Magnusson does clarify that “the intention is not that we should remove things that make our lives pleasant and more comfortable”, the rest of the book doesn’t seem to ring true to that sentiment.

In fact, her guiding question is, “Will anyone I know be happier if I save this?”

Also, she frequently shares stories and tips for ridding yourself of things that you may love but will merely become a burden to others, citing her beloved boat, stating that “sometimes you must just give cherished things away”.

And the contradictions don’t stop there. Another example sees her recommend that instead of buying flowers as a hostess gift, you bring one of your belongings. Later, she advises against burdening others with your cast-offs.

I’m confused.

"The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning" by Margareta Magnusson, a review | The difference between death cleaning and just a big cleanup

I also found it hard to make any emotional connection with the book, with parts of it seeming downright harsh. Take, for instance, this observation: “Some people can’t wrap their heads around death. And these people leave a mess after them. Did they think they were immortal?” I’m not sure any of us can truly wrap our heads around death, but that doesn’t mean we’ll all leave a big ol’ death mess behind us.

Added to that, I got the impression that Ms. Magnusson wasn’t a lady to be messed with: “I kept some of these items in a box in the attic, in case I was to be blessed with grandchildren. And when grandchildren failed to arrive, I would take the box down and remind my lazy children of what I wanted.”

Those must have been some fun family dinners. 

Still, she does have some practical advice for those who live in “a home that looks as if it has been tumble-dried” – start with the larger items and finish with the small.

She also recommends starting with an easy category – “one with many items to choose from and without too much sentimental connections”. She cites clothing as the category she herself starts with.

Then, work your way slowly and methodically through categories of things, finishing with sentimental items. 

If it sounds familiar, it’s because Marie Kondo said it first and, in my opinion, best.

She does, however, have some additional advice that I found interesting. One such tip is to keep a “throw away” box. This is where you put possessions that, perhaps, have a lot of sentimental value or hold a lot of pleasant memories for you, but that may mean nothing to others. The idea, then, is that after you pass away, your relatives can rest assured that they won’t be dishonouring your memory by dumping the contents.

It forms part of her general advice to leave clear instructions for what should be done with your things after you’re gone. That, I feel, is much more practical and palatable than merely getting rid of all your things to make life easier on your relatives.

Or, if you’re considering broaching the topic with a parent or older relative and are afraid of offending them, she provides a list of questions that don’t directly reference their death. These include asking if anything poses a safety hazard, of if there’s something they’re too tired to continue taking care of.

"The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning" by Margareta Magnusson, a review | Advice for those who want to talk about death cleaning with their parents

Perhaps the most intriguing section, though, is one that deals with items that may shock or offend your family if they find them after your death. (Yes, this is where the dildos come in.) The author draws on her own experience of having discovered a large stash of cigarettes while death-cleaning her mother’s linen closet and, as a result, says there’s no sense in saving things that may upset your family after you’re gone.

If you don’t want to get rid of something entirely, but you know your family may not be best pleased, at least consider reducing the impact in any way you can: “Save your favorite dildo––but throw away the other fifteen!”

I’m not sure how many people have sixteen dildos but that does seem like sound advice.

"The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning" by Margareta Magnusson, a review | What to do with things that may shock or upset your family after you're gone | dildo quote

Overall, Ms. Magnusson comes across as a thoughtful woman, a careful consumer, and a very practical, unsentimental person. She’s the grandmother who has a lot of experience and wisdom to share, who starts every story with “back in my day”, who tries but often fails to hide her belief that anyone who does things differently is wrong, and who takes no sh*t.

She also sometimes comes out with something so shocking or seemingly out-of-character that you can’t help but laugh.

In short, she’s the type of grandmother you’d hesitate to invite ‘round to tea, but you know that, if nothing else, things would be lively.

So, does T​he Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning live up to its impressive title? Will it help you “get rid of things to make life easier and less crowded”? Possibly, and there is some practical advice in here to help you do it, if you’re willing to put in the time and effort.

For me, though, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up is still where it’s at in terms of decluttering.

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  1. Laura, I love your review of this book, and I sense some tongue in cheek at times (in your review). I almost snorted my coffee when dildos were discussed. 16, OMG. I can’t imagine more than ten, lol. I too agree that the Kon Marie method is by far the best ok though the most intimate items discussed was underwear. Thanks for your sense of humour.

  2. Excellent (and hilarious XD) review! Based on it, I don’t think I’ll be getting a copy of the book after all. Ms. Magnusson sounds a little too much like my own grandmother for me to be comfortable with. XD As for my own decluttering technique, I’ll stick to my heavily edited KonMari Method (I know the whole point of it is that you’re not supposed to edit it, but I’m chronically ill, so I just don’t have the necessary energy to do it ‘properly’), with the tiny bit of Swedish Death Cleaning thrown in (as I’ve been doing since I heard the basics of it.)
    Thanks again for the awesome review!

  3. My grandma, although not swedish, seems to have a similar approach. Every time I visit her, the house is emptier. She gives to her kids, grand kids, or people who just plain need it. Oh, the duvet I used last time is gone? Yes, gone to somebody who just arrived in the country empty handed. But she still owns what make her home look like the house I’ve always known (same plates, for instance).
    I feel like it makes sense to prepare.

    • I agree, especially when she’s clearly being so kind and generous with her belongings. Why hoard things you don’t need when you could bless someone else? Makes perfect sense to me. Your grandma sounds wonderful. =)

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