Swedish death cleaning has been hailed as the Next Big Thing in decluttering. I’m still slightly traumatised from the last declutter I did: Marie Kondo. And I’m definitely on the rebound: my flat is stuffed, wardrobe heaving, mess in every cupboard I open (when I can actually shut the door). Maybe death cleaning – the Swedish word is Döstädning – isn’t just a trend. Maybe it’s the thing that will teach me to declutter for good?
After all, the original meaning of death cleaning is exactly what it says: setting your affairs in order before you die so your family don’t have to. In her book, The Gentle Art Of Death Cleaning (Canongate, £12.99), written by artist Margareta Magnusson from Stockholm, she explains death cleaning can also mean “a good, thorough cleaning” to get rid of things “to make life easier and less crowded". That is exactly what I need.
Magnusson has definitely practised what she preaches. Aged, she says, “at some point between my 80th and 100th birthdays", a mother of five, she has death cleaned for her own parents, when her husband of 48 years died and she’s moved house 17 times, including between continents.
How do you know you’re ready to death clean? It may be that you can’t close your drawer or shut your cupboard door, she says. But it’s really an emotional state: “Your exhaustion with all this stuff may appear out of the blue one day. 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.”
Oh, that sounds familiar. I have bags of winter clothes I haven’t even looked at this winter, and bags of summer clothes I’ll never wear again. We have at least 10 board games we never play, a drawer of 2,000 coloured pencils we never use, shelves of books I’ll never read again. What death cleaning should give you, says Magnusson, is “a permanent form of organisation that makes your everyday life run more smoothly". Yes, please!
Magnusson has a practical take on the emotional that I remember from my own grandmother, a wiseness that comes with experience. She admits she’s had to learn to let go: “My vice is really things. It took me a while to understand this, but you can enjoy all these things without owning them.” Her kindly tone slowly persuades me I can learn to let go, too. And the best thing of all about death cleaning is you can do it gently and slowly, not all at once, because Magnusson recognises stuff is emotional. Are you ready? This is some of her advice:
- Feel uncomfortable about getting rid of something? Spend time with it one last time before you dispose of it. “Each item has its own history, and remembering that history is often enjoyable.” Sit and think what the object means to you, where it came from. The same goes for books, especially those with your notes in the margin – re-read them.
- Where should you start? With dumping grounds, like the basement or the attic or the cupboards by your front door. If you’ve forgotten what’s in those places, that as good as shows you don’t need or want it.
- Label a space in each room with four pieces of paper: Give Away, Throw, Stay and Move.
- Tell people you’re decluttering, so they can come and take things. Choose things for people or let them pick. Let them browse your books. “To know something will be well used and have a new home is a joy.” If you are invited to someone’s house, don't buy flowers or presents – take them one of your things.
- Magnusson always chooses clothes as her first category, because it’s simple. Sort into two piles: 1) clothes you want to keep and 2) clothes you want to get rid of, including any that don’t fit, impulse purchases and things that don't go with anything. The worst category to start with is photographs or letters, she says. “If you start with them, you will definitely get stuck down memory lane and you may never get around to cleaning anything else.”
- As you tidy, allocate everything you’re keeping its own place.
- Be practical: how much do you really need? You only need as many plates as you can fit people around your table. The same goes for knives, forks, glasses and cups.
- Don’t be afraid to re-gift things you’ve been given. And understand when you give a present, that it’s not for ever.
- Finally, if someone tries to give you stuff from their own declutter, simply say, “No, thank you – I don't have room for this.”