REVIEW: The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Free Yourself and Your Family from a Lifetime of Clutter

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The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning – A Must Have for Baby Boomers!

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Genealogy author and educator Thomas MacEntee reviews The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning and discusses how the valuable advice can benefit the genealogy and family history enthusiast!

[Editor’s Note: I’ve been waiting for the book The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning to be released for several months now! One of my own resolutions for 2018 is to clean out many of my own possessions so they are not a burden to my family when my time is up. I also know it will help me clean up my genealogy and family history item as well! This amazing book is on sale in Kindle format for $10.99 (42% off the print price) – click HERE and the hardcover book is on sale for $12.10 (36% off the full price) – click HERE.]

Magnusson, Margareta. The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Free Yourself and Your Family from a Lifetime of Clutter. New York: Scribner, January 2018. 128 pages.

Over the past few years I’ve been lecturing to the genealogy community on the topic of what to do with years of family history research and how to pass it on to the next generation. In my own book After You’re Gone: Future Proofing Your Genealogy Research, I review many simple techniques for cleaning out a loved one’s home in order to gather important family history items. So when it was announced that The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning by Margaret Magnusson was being released, the book went to the top of my “must read” list.

And I wasn’t disappointed. So what makes Magnusson’s slim but effective tome different than any one of the other “get organized” books out there? Hers is done with humor and humility and from the perspective that one day each of us will be gone from this earth. And who wants to be remembered by their family and friends as a packrat? Or as someone who lived in a house where the camera crew from Hoarders was just outside the window? As the author states in the foreward: “Let me help make your loved ones’ memories of you nice—instead of awful.”

What is Death Cleaning?

The Swedish term döstädning literally means “death cleaning” in English. And as the author states, “it is a term that means that you remove unnecessary things and make your home nice and orderly when you think the time is coming closer for you to leave the planet.”

Simple, right? Actually not as simple as you think. I’ve gone through two major “clean outs” of homes in the past 10 years, and I can tell you that each situation is different and each clean out takes lots of time. Magnusson cuts through the sentimentality that can often bog us down when we set out to do a “purge” of possessions. The author bluntly reminds you that if you are sitting on items that you haven’t looked at in years, would you really miss them? And what is the real value of these items? And more importantly, what legacy are you leaving for your children or grandchildren?

Death cleaning according to Magnusson is “about a permanent form of organization that makes your everyday life run more smoothly.” So this isn’t just for those of us in our twilight years . . . anyone who feels burdened by their possessions can benefit from the sage advice found in The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning.

Practice Advice Delivered with Humor

Magnusson is “somewhere between 80 and 100 years old” as she states in the About the Author section and much of her advice is based on real experience. She cleaned out her mother’s apartment as well as her mother-in-law’s apartment after their deaths. And she downsized her own large home to fit into a two-bedroom apartment when her own husband died.

One touching segment, for me, was when the author discussed finding notes from her mother pinned to specific items. Each note contained advice as to how to dispose of the item and who to contact since they might be interested. This practice provided peace of mind to Magnusson as she sorted through her mother’s possessions.

And the funniest segments dealt with finding what the author calls “vice” items such as a block of arsenic (which her father kept on hand during World War II when the Nazis took over much of Europe) or cartons of cigarettes in her grandmother’s linen cabinet where she would sneak a smoke. Magnusson advises that if you have items tucked away that would cause embarrassment or discomfort when found by your loved ones, dispose of them. Or, in the case of a loved one’s collection of “marriage counselors”: keep your favorite one, not all fifteen.

Not All Advice Works for Genealogists and Family Historians

While I agree with the author on her basic approach to handling family photos and other sentimental items – set them aside to review later and don’t get bogged down in a walk down memory lane or you’ll never accomplish the cleaning – I strongly disagree with some ways of handling these items.

Throwing away duplicate photos or images that are out of focus etc. is great, I don’t agree with her advice of simply disposing of photos just because you can’t identify anyone in the picture. As genealogists we know that we have resources to help figure out who is who and when the image was taken even if there are no notes written on the back.

In addition, when it comes to salacious stories, letters and diaries, she writes: “Perhaps you have saved letters, documents, or diaries that contain information or family stories you would never wish to embarrass your descendants with. While we seem to live in a culture where everyone thinks they have the right to every secret, I do not agree. If you think the secret will cause your loved ones harm or unhappiness, then make sure to destroy them. Make a bonfire or shove them into the hungry shredder.”

Again, I have to disagree. As a family historian my role is to uncover the truth, and then to preserve the truth. There are better ways of handling this type of information: one method I use is to preserve the information, place it into an envelope with instructions on how to handle it (such as release after all living individuals identified in the story have passed), and then store the item with estate planning and other important papers. This way my executor can decide how to handle the items, but they aren’t burned on the trash heap.

The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning – A Great Gift

There are several books that I occasionally send to friends and family members, and even colleagues, as a thank you or when they are going through a difficult time in life. If you have parents who should be downsizing, or know a friend who just lost their spouse and needs to go through possessions, the calming advice in The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning can help remove the sting from such a process. I’m adding this one to my list of my “gifting” books.


One of the most important pieces of advice from Magnusson, besides performing your own death cleaning NOW, is to discuss the topic with your family members and friends. She notes the Viking tradition of burying objects with the owner when they died: “This was to be sure that the dead would not miss anything in their new environment. It was also an assurance for the family members who remained that they would not become obsessed with spirits of the dead and constantly be reminded of them because their possessions were still scattered all over the tent or mud hut.”

I enjoyed reading The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning by Margaret Magnusson and I intend to put much of the information to good use in 2018 as I downsize my home here in Chicago. One of the main themes in Magnusson’s work is one of generosity: giving away those possessions that have outlived their usefulness in your life and gift them to someone else in need of their functionality. Doing so reminds me of the motto on Peter Bailey’s office wall in the movie It’s a Wonderful Life: “All you can take with you is that which you’ve given away.”

About The Author: Martha Magnusson

Margareta Magnusson is, in her own words, aged between 80 and 100. Born in Sweden, she has lived all over the world. Margareta graduated from Beckman’s College of Design and her art has been exhibited in galleries from Hong Kong to Singapore. She has five children and lives in Stockholm. The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning is her first book.


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