Do a Swedish Death Clean to Overhaul Your Life
How this deep-decluttering custom clears your home and your mind as a “memento mori” in action
Don’t worry: It’s not as violent as it sounds. If you need more control in your life, Swedish Death Cleaning may be the answer.
This practice goes much deeper than just cleaning. It’s about tapping into your emotions, your legacy, and discovering what’s truly important to you. Swedish Death Cleaning is something that you can use at any point in your life — but sooner may be better than later.
The best way to think of Swedish Death Cleaning is like the ultimate spring cleaning. In Sweden, they call this “döstädning,” and it’s a combination of the words “dö,” which means “death,” and “städning,” which means “cleaning.”
With Death Cleaning, you want to get rid of as many unnecessary things from your life as possible. The core idea is that when you get to a certain age—50 years is the usual example—you should reduce the clutter in your home so your heirs won’t have to deal with it when you die.
This practice sounds morbid, but it’s actually about freedom and the chance to live a happier life. Removing excess clutter from around you allows you to open up the surrounding space. The things you don’t need could make a world of difference to someone else. Instead of objects just taking up room, pass them on to declutter your life — and to benefit someone else.
You can do this level of decluttering at any age to feel a sense of relief as if you have also decluttered your mind. It also reminds us that we are not immortal.
What Are the Benefits That Come From This?
The sooner you remove unnecessary items from your life, the better. You’ve probably heard about removing things that don’t bring you joy, and this is a similar approach.
Swedish Death Cleaning forces you to take a good hard look at what you don’t need. This practice helps you to reorganize your life, make it more optimal, and more enjoyable. This is as much an exercise for the mind and emotions as it is for clearing out junk. Death Cleaning helps you decide what is truly valuable to you. It also helps lower your stress as less stuff equals less stress.
One important part of Death Cleaning is the nostalgia factor. When you declutter your life, you get to remember why certain things are important to you. It allows you to remember the past and appreciate what you have now.
Through this entire process, you get to realize that happiness comes from relationships, not material possessions. Material things may make you feel good for a bit, but that feeling doesn’t last. You become consumed with attaining the next thing to feel good again, and this can get out of control. The desire to accumulate more “stuff” only leaves you feeling anxious and unhappy.
I finally took a crack at Death Cleaning, and it made me feel more motivated and energetic. It’s extremely cleansing. The process makes you feel more productive and even motivated to take on other tasks.
These benefits may also improve your mental health. Even just the acknowledgment of death — as depressing as that might be — can give you a better sense of self. This acknowledgment gives you more of an idea of how others may see you. This will help you realize how you want to be seen now and remembered later.
Where Do You Begin With All This?
Swedish Death Cleaning is more than just reorganizing your desk. It’s about going deep and making conscious decisions to get rid of an extensive amount of what you don’t need. The secret here is don’t take everything on at once. If you try to do this all in one shot — and overhaul everything in your life right away — you’ll end up defeated and frustrated. Start small and build from there.
Key tip: You don’t want to start with personal mementos and photos. You have to build up your ability to handle the feelings of this process through other projects with a lower emotional load first.
A great place to start is your closet (though, as you’ll see below, I started with my car). The closet often contains a lot of unneeded things. This will get you warmed up to eventually tackle something bigger, like a basement. From the closets, move on to bigger projects like the bedroom. Then go through the living room, and so on.
The important thing is to take your time and spread it out over the weeks. You don’t have to complete this all at once. The benefit of spreading it out is you are more likely to finish. As you gradually progress to more difficult areas, the momentum of what you have already accomplished will help you do more.
There’s another important reason to save the biggest projects for last: You’ll be a pro at deciding what has value and what doesn’t. You’ll have tapped into your emotions and taught yourself how to be better at letting things go.
My Experiences With Death Cleaning
This is something I did more than a year ago. I told myself I would never let myself accumulate too much stuff as I hated seeing my family do it. I wasn’t a hoarder at all — I just had built up more than I intended.
It wasn’t a conscious decision to start with Death Cleaning, but I saw a YouTube video about it — and something about it just stuck with me. One day, I had enough of how many things I had, and something just snapped. I remembered the concept of Swedish Death Cleaning and investigated it further. Here’s the technique I followed that seemed to work best.
I knew that this is to be a gradual process, so I gave myself two weeks to do the full clean as work and life were still going on.
The Process I Followed
I started with my car. That might seem weird, but if you own a car, you realize how quickly they can become a storage locker on wheels. Since I was in my car multiple times a day, I wanted to clear out all the junk that had built up. This was great as it didn’t take too long. I felt lighter already.
I gave myself two days for this but needed nearly three. This is where a majority of most sentimental things were — so it was a long process. I started with my closet and got rid of half of my clothes. I donated a lot of books and got rid of a desk I never use. It horrified me how many garbage bags I threw out — but it was a great start to Death Cleaning.
Keep in mind: You may need longer for your room than you estimate, but don’t let this discourage you. Don’t be afraid to take time to work through those emotions. This is an important part of the process. In retrospect, if I’d chosen to do the living room first, that might have been easier.
You can also get very off track and spend more time on things than you planned for. I spent a lot of time reading old letters and looking at photo albums (kids, ask your parents what a photo album is).
The Death Cleaning process really makes you remember the past.
I thought this would take the longest and gave myself four days, but I got it done in two and a half. After my bedroom, this seemed much easier. I got into a groove pretty quickly as there aren’t as many sentimental items in my kitchen. I took a lot of appliances, dinnerware, and random knick-knacks to Goodwill.
I’m not sure about your situation, but the accumulation of those knick-knack items had gotten out of control. This can easily happen in the kitchen. Now, my cupboards and pantry aren’t filled to the brim.
The living room
The Death Cleaning process was now easier. The living room was the quickest to do and only took me a day. I devoted a whole Sunday to it, and this was about getting rid of the furniture I didn’t need. I took these items to Goodwill. In my case, I had very little attachment to most things in there. Excess cushions, throw pillows, magazines, etc. were all gone. Excess is a good word to describe this entire process as we have too much of it in our lives.
If you decide to do this, you may want to go through the living room earlier on as it was the easiest one for me.
This only took another day as it became more about cleaning them. This is the time to go through the medicine cabinets and clear out all those old items that have just been sitting there collecting dust. Do you realize how many towels a person accumulates over their life?
There’s no other way to put it: this sucked. But I knew that going in — as I’m sure you will, too. The one good thing is I had been slowly reducing the junk in the basement over the years. This was easier than if I had done it a few years ago. At this point in the Death Cleaning process, I felt like I was getting rid of trash — and I realized how much of it had been around me.
There were still many important items, but it was easier to identify what was meaningful. At this point, I felt really energetic, and despite taking nearly three days, I could see the finish line.
How Did This Overhaul My Life?
I’m glad I gave myself the two-week time frame. It took about eight total days spread out over two weeks. And it's true: The first few days are the hardest as it takes longer to decide to keep or trash each item. By the end, you learn to make a quick instinctive decision and can fly through the rest of the process.
I also learned that a lot of physical items just don’t feel as important to me now — and it changed the way I view possessions. As much as I love electronics, I saw them as items that will just end up in a landfill someday.
Despite how badly I want the new iPad, I know it will just become a very expensive paperweight. Objects that once felt important didn’t hold the same value to me anymore. This was a big realization for me. I felt good donating what I did as those items may bring joy to someone else.
This process helped me remember that experiences and moments are the most valuable things in our lives. They are what stay with us — and physical items don’t. It truly felt cleansing and made me more appreciative of the people and memories in life compared to the possessions that once seemed so important. I got to relive the past and could appreciate what I have now. The things I kept now seem more precious than ever.
This entire process made me feel lighter. There is less stress over less junk. I didn’t feel a burden of accumulation hanging over me anymore. I also feel better at making decisions as I had to make hundreds over the process. I also felt more motivated to accomplish other things (you honestly feel like you can take on anything after this).
I may even help my parents tackle their garage — but if you know my parents, this could have disaster written all over it…
If you’ve ever moved before, you may have gone through this entire process from that perspective. The idea with Swedish Death Cleaning is to do it before any big life changes, such as a move, impose the need for it. When you’re moving, you’re already under a time crunch — and dealing with so much stress — that it’s hard to be in the right frame of mind to do it properly.
You can see that this practice is so much more than just “tidying up.” Swedish Death Cleaning is a real psychological practice to give you control of your life and prepare you for the future.
Death Cleaning gives you a better perspective, and it helps you take stock of your own life and decide what is truly meaningful to you.