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Book Report: ‘The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning’

Author and artist Margareta Magnusson’s lessons for decluttering are applicable to all, no matter your stage of life.

Simon & Shuster, original photo on Houzz

In 2015, Marie Kondo’s decluttering advice sparked joy for many people trying to declutter. Last year the Danish concept of hygge became a household word. Recently, it’s getting a little bit weird, as a new book, The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning, is generating major buzz. It was written by Margareta Magnusson, who “is somewhere between 80 and 100 years old.” The philosophy it describes is based upon organizing your things in a way that will make the process of cleaning out your home easier on those loved ones you leave behind. 

I know this sounds morbid, but please stay with me here. The book is full of good advice for anyone of any age in any state of health who is downsizing or is simply overwhelmed by all of his or her stuff. It’s an easy and quick read, but it takes a few pages and chuckles to get used to Magnusson’s very straightforward and downright blunt Swedish practicality. The book is also full of her own charming illustrations, memories and even a few recipes. The further I got into it, the more I found her bluntness refreshing and the little rabbit trails down memory lane she veered onto endearing. What follows is a small sampling of her advice.

Magnusson introduces the book with: “You have collected so much wonderful stuff in your life — stuff that your family and friends can’t evaluate or take care of. Let me help make your loved ones’ memories of you nice — instead of awful.” Right off the bat, the author minces no words, and it becomes charming and even funny as you read on. 

She knows of what she speaks, having completed five death cleanings after losing beloved family members, including her husband. And after moving 17 times around Sweden and to far-flung places like Tokyo, she has vast experience in letting her own things go. Now, as someone over 80, she has applied those lessons to her own death cleaning, sparing her children any fights over coveted items and heavy lifting for clean-out.

Astleford Interiors, Inc., original photo on Houzz

How to know if you are ready for a death cleaning, no matter your age or health. When the amount of stuff you have feels overwhelming and the thought of tackling it is exhausting, you can use Magnusson’s advice.

“If you can’t keep track of your things, then you know you have too many,” Magnusson writes. “When someone cancels a weekend visit or a dinner, you feel grateful instead of disappointed because you may be too tired to clean up for their visit. The problem is that you have too much stuff to deal with. It’s time to change your way of living. It is never too late to start!”

Where to begin. Magnusson recommends beginning with an attic, a basement or an entryway closet. “Many of the things you have in storage have probably been standing there for ages. You may even have forgotten what it is you have there,” she writes. She recommends spreading the word about your clean-out — people will help you move things, and they will cart away items you are done with and that they need. She advises keeping bags and boxes handy so you can pack things up and send them off with anyone who walks through your doors. 

Related: Shop Storage Containers

RSVP Design Services, original photo on Houzz

Consider the easiest categories. Whether it’s sports equipment, linens, gardening supplies or tools, Magnusson recommends choosing one category that will be easy to handle first — one without much sentimental connection. 

This could be going through kitchen supplies or a workbench and eliminating duplicates or items you know longer use.

Where not to begin. Magnusson recommends steering clear of photographs, letters and personal papers. “One thing is certain — if you start with them, you will definitely get stuck down memory lane and may never get around to cleaning anything else,” she writes. “Start with the large items in your home and finish with the small.”

Constanza Subijana/HS DECOR, original photo on Houzz

Clothing. Magnusson likes to start with clothing. She simply puts them all into two piles: The first pile is “keep,” and the second pile is “get rid of.” Clothes that don’t fit or that you never wear should go into pile two without hesitation. To further organize pile one, chuck the impulse buys and the items that don’t go with anything else in your wardrobe.

A place for everything.“Mess is an unnecessary source of irritation,” Magnusson writes. “To hunt for misplaced things is never an effective use of your time.” To prevent this, create a place for everything: hooks for keys, a designated drawer for hats and gloves and, if your home has more than one story, a basket on the stairs to place things to take with you the next time you go up.

Magnusson also recommends wearing an apron with pockets while doing general cleaning like vacuuming so that you can collect things that are in the wrong spot as you go. Then when you’re done, go around and put them where they belong.

KDC | Kasta Design Company, original photo on Houzz

How to downsize. After the death of her husband of 48 years, Magnusson took an entire year to do a major clean-out. The cleaning also prepped her for downsizing from a roomy house to a two-bedroom apartment in the city. She carefully measured her new apartment’s rooms and her pieces, figured out what would fit where and was practical about getting rid of large items that would not fit.

While she hoped her children would take items full of sentimental value and memories, if they didn’t have room, she donated the items. “You can always hope and wait for someone to want something in your home, but you cannot wait forever, and sometimes you must just give cherished things away with the wish that they end up with someone who will create new memories of their own,” she writes.

Getting a grip. The emotions that go along with downsizing can be tough; Magnusson recommends working “at a pace that suits you” if you have the luxury of time. “Now is not the time to get stuck in memories. No, now planning for your future is much more important. Look forward to a much easier and calmer life — you will love it!” she writes.

Self-care and perspective are important during downsizing. “Regard your cleaning as an ordinary, everyday job. And in between, enjoy yourself as much as possible with all the things you like to do,” she writes.

Hilda Grahnat, original photo on Houzz

Taking inventory.Magnusson kept her new lifestyle in mind when going through everything. She realized she would no longer need place settings for 16 people, or so many napkins, placemats and tablecloths. 

She kept only books she planned to read or that she kept returning to. She also learned to let go. “I will never feel guilty for not keeping presents forever,” she writes. And purging so much made room for a better lifestyle for her. She promises that doing so will bring good times in the future. “Living smaller is a relief,” she writes.

Prepping for moving day. After figuring out from the measurements what she would be keeping, she labeled every item “give away,” “throw,” “stay” or “move.” She then kept a running list so that she could keep track of which pieces the new homeowners wanted, which were going to an auction house, to whom she would be handing things down, and the charities that would be getting donations.

Theresa Fine, original photo on Houzz

How to keep decluttering and maintain a streamlined life. Magnussen writes, “Even though this may sometimes seem quite hard to do, training yourself to enjoy only looking at things, instead of buying them, is very nice and also a good practice.”

And while it can seem awkward, take a pass on hand-me-downs and gifts you don’t want. “If you receive things you don’t really want from your parents or someone else who wants to reduce the number of their possessions in their home, you should be honest and say, ‘No thank you, I don’t have room for this,’” she writes.

Reading The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning is a smart first move to get you motivated for a big clean-out.

Set up a pot of tea, light a fire, curl up under a big blanket and you’ll have the whole thing read in under two hours. And you’ll be well-rested, so you can start right away if you like. 

Original article written by Becky Harris on Houzz.

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