“Swedish death cleaning” may sound like a funeral ritual. But it’s actually all about living in the present.
The longstanding in Swedish practice – further popularized with the book “The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning” by Margareta Magnusson – involves a person going through their things so they don’t burden their loved ones with too much junk when they die. But death cleaning isn’t just for those near death; anyone can do it at anytime: before or after a big life change, or if they’re simply sick of all the clutter around them.
“The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning” is now a TV series streaming on Peacock. It follows three Swedish death cleaners – Ella Engström, an organizer; Johan Svenson, a designer; and Katarina Blöm, a psychologist – as they assist Americans in Kansas City trying to tidy up their lives, materially and emotionally. (The familiar voice Amy Poehler narrates, and she serves as executive producer.)
“It’s a very deeply rooted way of handling your life in Sweden to not burden other people and also not live excessively,” Svenson says.
Death cleaning is ‘life-affirming’
Don’t think of death cleaning as the same as minimalism. You aren’t getting rid of everything.
“You really want your home as well as your bigger life to be a reflection of your purpose, of what you value or how you want to treasure life,” Blöm says. “And that’s why this is such a life-affirming show, even though it carries the word death in the title.”
Still, death looms over the show. In American culture, we don’t talk about death much. Swedish culture is more open about it – everyone will die, after all.
“In general, we have a difficult time thinking about death and thinking about our own mortality,” says Loree Johnson, licensed marriage and family therapist. “But just even the process of going through one’s things is actually a loving act for your family.”
‘It’s an ongoing process’
While the show features many different types of people across eight episodes – a man who lost both his parents back-to-back, a woman dying of terminal cancer, empty nesters who want their kids to go through their childhood items – not everyone has to do a major death cleaning like this all at once. And it’s not always tied to a morose life event.
“It’s an ongoing process,” Engström says. “If you look at your life, it’s like a timeline. And you change during lifetime, and so do your needs. So just look through your stuff and see what serves me here and now.”
Remember that death cleaning can – and should – also be fun. Rummaging through heirlooms brings up happy memories too. Cherished blankets. Old costumes.
And the death cleaners laugh plenty throughout their work on the show. When asked if they would try their hand at one of the others’ jobs, Blöm and Svenson said they’d totally trade places with Engström. Engström, who is also an interior designer, would naturally try Svenson’s specialty.
At the thought of that, Svenson deadpans: “She thinks she has taste.”
Find out ‘what matters to you the most’ while death cleaning
Whenever you embark on a death cleaning, remember there’s strength in numbers. Invite many people along for the journey – friends, loved ones.
“Make it social as much as you can,” Blöm says. “I know you can feel ashamed of your own home and be very self-critical. Like, why haven’t I done this sooner? But it’s never too late to just start small if you have to, and please invite others to help you.”
Plus, death cleaning benefits everyone. “I imagine that this process is just as good for the person planning or preparing for death, as it is for the people they’re leaving behind,” says Cecille Ahrens, licensed clinical social worker.
While you likely won’t have three professionals on hand like on the series, definitely consider who you might like to be helping you during a death cleaning. Beyond family and friends, should you consult a therapist? An organizer? Remember it is normal to feel overwhelmed and asking for help is OK.
Overall, though, Blöm hopes the show “inspires more people to have real conversations about death and life and what matters to you the most.”
More on death, grief
In case you missed:Why that sudden ‘Succession’ death may have felt like real trauma
Important:Ashley Judd’s mother, Chrissy Teigen’s baby and why we’re so judgmental about grief
Personal story:My dad’s illness, death forced me to miss last spring. A year later, I’m smelling flowers.
Death can be shocking:Lisa Marie Presley, Grant Wahl, Stephen ‘tWitch’ Boss and the trauma of a sudden death