What is “death cleaning”?

What is “death cleaning”?

Some people call it “purging,” some “decluttering” and others “minimalizing,” but in Sweden, they call it “death cleaning.”

Well, actually they call it “dostadning,” which is a hybrid of the words for death and cleaning.

The purpose?

Cleaning out your house before you die so others don’t have to after you are gone.

While it may sound morbid to some, to others, it’s a way of not burdening their children or other loved ones.

In her book called The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning, Swedish author and artist Margareta Magnusson describes the process as “more like a relief” than being morbid and says the cleaning brings benefits you can appreciate while you’re still enjoying life – like a clean, uncluttered and streamlined house.

“Generally, people have too many things in their homes,” says Magnusson in a YouTube video posted by the book’s publisher. “I think it’s a good thing to get rid of things you don’t need.”

Magnusson says people should start thinking about death cleaning as soon as they’re old enough to start thinking about their own mortality.

Geriatric Medicine specialist Dr. Willam D. Rhoades, with Advocate Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge, Ill., agrees with the author’s philosophy on not keeping things you don’t want or use, and says there are multiple benefits to letting go of these extraneous possessions. These include:

  • Decreasing stress levels: Studies have shown that messy houses can increase anxiety and stress and decrease productivity
  • Knowing where everything is: It’s easier to lose important items like bills and medications when there is too much clutter in the home, which also contributes to stress and anxiety
  • Safety: Seniors are much more susceptible to falls and breaking bones; that risk is exacerbated with a house full of stuff
  • Reducing allergies: Having too much stuff also increases the likelihood for allergens and mold in your home
  • The joy of giving: Items you no longer need or use can help younger relatives who are just starting out or can be given to friends who will put items to use. However, be prepared that others may turn down some of your gifts
  • Tax breaks: When you donate your possessions, it can help decrease your tax burden if you itemize those donations
  • Passing on family history: When families are engaged together in reducing possessions, certain items are likely to spark conversations about memories and ancestors, which can promote family bonding and help to pass down family history

Many people are already death cleaning – they just don’t call it that. One increasingly popular way is through downsizing, the process of letting go of possessions and moving from large homes, where children were raised, to smaller homes, condos or apartments, to decrease housing expenses, move closer to grandchildren or warmer weather or transition from the suburbs into the city.

If you want to help your parents with the process of death cleaning, Dr. Rhoades suggests that a more gentle approach than “we want to help you clean out your stuff before you die” will be more likely to get aging parents on board.

He suggests broaching the conversation by highlighting the benefits. For example, “Would you like help organizing your belongings so your house is a more enjoyable and safer place to live?”

“If not initially receptive, you may need to have multiple conversations over time to help parents warm up to the idea,” says Dr. Rhoades. However, he notes, some people may never be receptive. If a loved one’s home is indeed a safety hazard, you may want to call in an expert who specializes in hoarding. The National Association of Professional Organizers (NAPO) is a good place to start.

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  1. On death cleaning, as a child of a parent who recently died, I highly disagree. My father and his wife could not part with anything that was important to them, including 30 years of bank statements and Christmas cards. When he passed, it took me every day of a month to sort through what seemed to be a house of hoarding. I laughed and cried and tore at my heart through the entire process as I got to know two people I loved better than I had ever known them before. I felt relief but emptiness when I was done; it had been as if they were speaking to me all the while I sorted through their deepest thoughts. Closing the door that last day was truly a goodbye…I’m glad their hoarding prolonged that goodbye.

  2. I went through this when my parents died, and was so overwhelmed that I ended up bringing a lot of it with me to my home. Now I’m struggling to be rid of all that, as well as much of what I’ve collected through the years. Death cleaning is one of the best things I’ve undertaken in my life.

  3. Linda,
    Such a beautiful way to look at it. I think that it does help you through the mourning. And you stated it wonderfully.
    Thank you.

  4. It took me a month to recover from the loss of my Mom before I could “disturb” her personal belongings. Then, it took me 8 months of non-stop “purging” to get ready to move somewhere else (we shared a raised ranch). Very difficult since everything had some connection or memory including furniture, clothing, family photos and jewelry. She also had kept every bill and “important” papers from 50+ years prior. Quite an accumulation. The local shredding service made several house calls and St. Vinny’s and the Vets shared in possessions that were very clean and well kept. It would have been impossible for her to part with them while she was still at home. I don’t envy anyone going through the process. Some things I haven’t yet been able to part with.

  5. I came from a family of savers. Fortunately, I am not married to a saver, and I have learned the importance of decluttering. If the kids don’t want it when we are alive, we assume that they won’t want it when we aren’t. In other words, we are embracing simple.

About the Author

Kate Eller
Kate Eller

Kate Eller, health enews contributor, is director of public affairs for Advocate Illinois Masonic Medical Center and Advocate Lutheran General Hospital. She came to Chicago and Advocate in 2014 after living in Iowa, Nebraska, Missouri, Kansas and Texas. She enjoys road trips, exploring little towns, minimalism, hiking and urban hiking around Chicago.