Swedish Death Cleaning: Clean Before you Croak

Let’s talk today about two of our very favorite subjects: death and cleaning! (This conversation could only be made better if we added taxes to the agenda. Okay that and maybe also colonoscopies, but I’m losing you so let’s just stick with death and cleaning.)

You’ve heard of Swedish Death Cleaning, right? The thoughtful process of Cleaning Up Your Shit Before You Die So You Kids Don’t Have to Sort Through Your Expired Spice Drawer?

Chart of Sweden's Happiness and Clean House-liness

Fig 1.0.

The Swedes are pretty fastidious, streamlined people—they invented IKEA, duh—so we should feel good taking advice from them about organizing life before death. They are also a happy bunch, consistently ranked in the top 10 of the “Happiest Countries in Spite of the Winter” year after year—and we all know about the high correlation between gross national happiness and the orderliness of dead corpses’ dwellings (see fig. 1.0).

Döstädning is the Swedish word for IKEA meatballs death and cleaning, described in The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning as “term that means you remove unnecessary things and make your home nice and orderly when you think your time is coming closer for you to leave the planet.”

Can we all just agree that “when you think your time is coming closer for you to leave the planet” is an extraordinarily arbitrary timeframe? That most of us don’t get a handy appointment reminder from the Reaper? That even though we get 4,000 Mondays on average, we’re all just one misstep out into traffic/ bee sting/ aneurysm away from the morgue—regardless of our age? We might “leave the planet” tomorrow, so let’s get this crap cleaned up TODAY, shall we? (Welcome to The Gentle Violent Art of Swedish Death Cleaning, kids!)

The two benefits of Swedish Death Cleaning (SDC):

Benefit #1: Thinking About Your Legacy (i.e., how people are going to talk about you when you’re comfortably reclined in your casket).

All we’re gunning for in the afterlife is for someone to give a shit that we’re gone, to say nice things about us at our funeral, and maybe feel fond-ish feelings when their iPhone pops a photo of us up on the “On This Day” feature. Leaving your place in a shambles puts all of this lovely legacy stuff at risk, because we all know that annoyance trumps grief. The formula, as you might recall from high school finite math (bahaha, get it? Finite?) is as follows:

The Annoynace trumps Grief Formula

Fig 2.0: The “Annoynace trumps Grief” Finite Math Formula

SDC saves your kids/ heirs/ looters-after-death from sifting and sorting through your crap—which is thoughtful for them (sure, fine, whatever), but mostly about eliminating any and all distractions from what should be a profound and protracted grief. We want people deeply upset that you’re gone, not resentful because you saved every promotional coffee mug that ever came your way and so now they have to Deal With Your Shit. Let your people mourn properly, annoyance-free.

#2: Thinking About the Life You are Living Now.

RIP Thelma the SlobLet’s face it—it’s a bit shortsighted to worry about how people will think about you when you’re dead because YOU WILL BE DEAD. Your feelings will probably be subdued. It’s highly unlikely you’ll hear their “Thelma—she was such a slob” whispers … as you’re being lowered into the ground. You probably won’t see the look of horror on your kids’ faces as they open up the stuffed-to-the-brim attic door … when your ashes are sitting on the mantle in an overpriced urn. So if it’s pointless to clean up now just to manage other people’s perceptions then, why not clean up… for your own benefit?

Remember when The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up came out and we were all walking around side-eyeing everything we owned, asking if the decorative globes and bookends and toothbrush holders sparked joy? Joy? Any joy at all? And so we threw a bunch of “there ain’t no joy sparks here” stuff out only to replace it with more joy-free stuff from Homegoods? Yes! That. It’s time to Marie Kondo the shit out of your life again, and ruthlessly. We’re not asking if stuff sparks joy this time; we’re asking if it’s worth surviving you when you flatline. “Do I want to die with this on my shelf” has a more urgent ring to it. “Is this worth living with in my fleeting Mondays?” The answer, if you’re doing it right, is probably no, and your home, if you’re doing it right, should end up looking as austere as a monastery (but with way more booze in the fridge and maybe a lot less religious paraphernalia—but you do you).

Research is clear that clutter puts the kibosh on our sense of well-being, and can even spike cortisol, the stress hormone—so what I’m choosing to deduce is that a home full of DOOM (Didn’t Organized, Only Moved) piles and Time magazines from 2004 can be the very things that kill you. So again, if you could care less about what your ungrateful son thinks about you as he’s forced to torch your pad after you’ve died, purge as an act of self-care/ self-preservation more than selfishness.

Notes on purging before the morgue.

I’m not here to judge what you’ve accumulated, or for how long you’ve housed those 18 empty margarine containers in the back of your kitchen cupboard beside the sippy cup lids your kids drank from in the late 90s (oooh, did you catch that tone? Apparently I am judging you?). This is less about how and why you’ve made a mess out of your life home and more about what you’re going to do about it before you expire.

There’s an inherent tension—and fine line—that exists between saving things for good cause and qualifying for that A&E hoarding show. Saving the artifacts of hobbies you really truly plan to rekindle one day is ostensibly a good thing, whereas holding onto the bins and boxes of all the beads and Bedazzlers that Michael’s craft store ever sold to you in 2012—with no real interest in Bedazzling an acid-wash jean jacket ever again—that might mean you’re hoarding, Honey.

You need to be brutally honest with yourself as you embark upon Operation: Purge Before the Morgue. Slap yourself in the face and ask yourself if your intentions are pure when you’re justifying why you need to hold onto that glue gun, or if it’s a case of wishful thinking. You’re dying. How badly do you want to use that glue gun before you go?

Here’s an assortment of places to look in your SDC mission:

  • Papers: Let’s keep this simple. If you have cabinets that house file folders that house papers that aren’t related to your estate/ will/ proof you’re royalty/ anything of value after you’re gone, LIGHT THE MATCH.
  • Clothes: I know your closets are already making you breathe into a paper bag, so I’m going to save you from the discomfort of exploring this bullet point.
  • Clothes, Part II: Changed my mind! Just to rankle a wee bit: do you really want your loved ones rifling through the pit-stained undershirts you’ve inexplicably held onto all these years? Clothing Purge Rule of Thumb: get rid of all evidence of your grotesqueness (unless it’s a blue stained dress that might hold up in court someday). Here’s another gem: if you’re waiting for something to fit again, give up the ghost. Also: if you’re waiting for something to come back in style again, accept that you will die before that pendulum swings back. And finally: if you’re over 70, donate everything that’s not a black turtleneck. Fuck it: let’s all edit our wardrobes down to the capsule wardrobe of Just Black Turtlenecks.
  • Books: I’m not going to comment here because books are sacred and precious (well, ahem, some more than others) and getting rid of books is like getting rid of house pets (only assholes do that), so I give you permission to keep all your books and piss off the entire family who will end up burning them in your backyard with all your file folders.
  • Stuff-stuff: Random wiffle balls rolling around the basement floor, three escargot forks, your Blackberry charger, your gallons of lead paint: it can all go. It must go. Rip your medicine cabinet off the wall and dispose of it on the next garbage day. No one wants to touch your expired ointments, now or after you’ve bit the biscuit.
  • Pantry: Guys, everything expires (including Chef Boyardee’s finest canned goods) so please don’t inflict a public health emergency on your family when they clean out your pantry and fridge. Hazmat outfits should not be required when handling your spore-covered relics.
  • Sentimental stuff: It can be charming to keep stuff from when the kids were little / things your Great Grandma Gretta left you, right? But how many macaroni-encrusted pieces of “art” do you need? How many chipped tea cups do you need? I have a number: none. I’m not a heartless bitch (that’s not true; I barely have an emotional pulse), so I do get that sentimentality has its warm and fuzzy well-being benefits. Maybe you make a deal with the devil (a.k.a. me): you can keep Uncle Melvin’s stamp collection if you get rid of your Sony walkman and the empty aquarium with a crack in it.
  • Secret squirrels: You probably have places stuffed with junk that I haven’t mentioned yet. The garage? The trunk of your car? Your office? Your parents’ crawlspace? OMG PLEASE DON’T TELL ME YOU HAVE A STORAGE UNIT BECAUSE IF YOU DO I’M NOT SURE I CAN EVEN HANDLE IT.

What to keep in the purge.

Good question. Other than a few key provisions (a towel, toothbrush, Netflix, and vodka), here is what you can save:

Cash, safety deposit box keys (only if the boxes are full of even more cash and maybe a few rare yellow diamonds), letters of confession (the juicier the better), memoirs (only if you’re wildly successful &/or rich &/or part of The Rolling Stones), Olympic medals (just the gold though—your heirs have no interest in first- and second-place loser trinkets), photos (only if everyone looks happy—which eliminates all photos before 1940), and scavenger hunt maps that lead to legit treasure. Everything else can go.

*** *** ***

Clean Before You CroakSo should we all start Swedish Death Cleaning our lives? As the PR rep for the Grim Reaper, my answer is a reflexive Yes because I’ve seen his work and 100% of us are going to end up dead—often when we least expect it. But I can be reasonable. I get it that when you’re moving into your first place (at 32 after your parents finally kicked you out encouraged you to “experience autonomy”), you’re in acquisition mode, adding important shit to your home (like air fryers and margarita glasses and make up brush organizers). Go keep the Container Store in business! Williams Sonoma needs your paycheck! Stock up that spice drawer! But remember that every purchase you make is something someone will have to take out of your home when you die. Food for thought: consider “Purge, don’t Splurge” as a mantra.

And you over there, north of 40. If you’ve blown through more than half of your 4,000-ish Mondays, get on it, Granny. Time is not on your side and let’s be honest, you’ve been living in squalor and none of your friends have had the heart to tell you. Be callous with your purge. Cutthroat! The good news is that if you get rid of something you’re worried you might regret, you’re at an age when you won’t remember anyways. “I thought I used to have a garlic press,” you’ll comment out loud to your utensil drawer, and when you hear nothing back you’ll say, “oh, I guess not.” And at that point you can fall onto the floor in a crumpled heap, and die, with the knowledge that your place is fabulously Spartan and sterile and oh so Swedish.

Jodi Wellman

P.S.: Want a book worth hoarding? Oh yes you do! Preorder You Only Die Once: How to Make It to the End with No Regrets and I’ll help clean your crap when you’re toast.

P.P.S.: Let’s connect on Instagram.

P.P.P.S.: Oh and just in case you missed it… I’d love you forever if you took 16 minutes out of your life to watch my TEDx talk!


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