Why Every Couple Should Swedish “Death Clean” Their Home

Not as scary as it sounds

Updated 04/04/18

Stocksy United

When Jamie, my partner in life (and crime) moved in with me, he brought: a sight-gag sized bag of golf clubs, a heap of hockey equipment, an embarrassment of power tools, a borderline feral cat, and several 40-pound bags of kitty litter.

I did not handle it well. Maybe in better real estate markets, merging households is a purely joyful experience, but in a place like New York City, where no one ever feels like they have enough space, the happiness of cohabitation can quickly get eclipsed by the feeling like you’re drowning in someone else’s unsightly junk and bulky nonsense.

But then we tried Swedish "Death Cleaning," and it’s become my obsession—and something I firmly believe every cohabiting couple should try. Swedish Death Cleaning is like the new hygge, or lykke, the latest (and arguably last, life cycle-wise) Scandi-chic lifestyle sensation, chronicled and illustrated in The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Free Yourself and Your Family from a Lifetime of Clutter by Margareta Magnusson.

Death cleaning—or döstädning, in Swedish—isn’t as gory or sad as it sounds. “It 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,” Magnusson writes. Or, you know, just when you’re moving in together or trying to get organized before the registry bounty starts rolling in!

Jamie and I started with our junk drawer—by design, the most logical place to start. As we unloaded roughly two pounds of odd keys for long-forgotten locks, we were invigorated to keep going through our shared and individual closets and cabinets. It’s way too easy, I’ve found, to be judgy, impatient, and unsympathetic about your partner’s stuff. You begrudge them a lot of reasonable things: Do they really need multiple pairs of socks? Their graduate dissertation? An extra charger?! And you guard your own mountain of junk with indignant greed. But when we death cleaned together, we weren’t so defensive about our admittedly silly/ill-advised/foolishly optimistic stockpiles.

Illustration by Margareta Magnusson from The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning

We burned through the kitchen cabinets, jettisoning chipped mugs and glasses and plates and redundant mixing bowls. (I couldn’t help but notice the irony that many of the things going out the door in the Swedish death cleaning heap—cheap colanders, lamp mistakes, what seemed like thousands of pairs of scissors—had come from IKEA.) I filled a contractor’s trash bag with yarn, fabric, and a trio of unused pom-pom makers and donated it to a kids’ art center. Jamie got rid of sports equipment, a tangle of chargers, and a few last-gen tools.

Indeed, among the things Magnusson specifically calls out for scrutiny are sports gear, tools, and gifts. Throughout the book, she establishes herself as equal parts no-nonsense and lovable nutburger, like the time she wore her wok as a hat, or went skiing in a bikini: “It is strange to think the bikini would work in the Alps, when ski boots most certainly do not work when swimming.” The takeaway: Keep the two-piece, chuck the boots. (When she discusses how to handle your truly secret stashes, she recommends keeping just “your favorite dildo—throw away the other fifteen!”) She also reckons with her husband’s snickarbod (which she explains is the word for toolshed, but in her late husband’s case “gradually became what I believe today is called a ‘man cave’”) and fulskåp (“a cupboard full of gifts you can’t stand to look at, and which are impossible to regift”).

Illustration by Margareta Magnusson from The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning

As Jamie and I found, there is nothing harder to justify getting rid of a gift that a loved one sweetly gave you, but you’ve never even taken it out of its packaging more than a year later. (I’m looking at you, fussy and full-stocked picnic basket, and swiftly putting you on the stoop for some lucky neighbor to find!) Yet Magnusson offers reassurance through this purging process: “If I give a present to someone, I understand that it may not stay with that person forever. Do any of us really keep track of everything we give away?” she writes. “I will never feel guilty for not keeping presents...To be grateful and happy for the present when you first receive it is something different, because that gratitude is not connected to the thing itself, but the person who gave it to you.”

As crazy as it might sound, it can help to bring the death-cleaning mindset to registering, especially when you live in small space. Think about what you’d love to have, of course, but also what you’ll actually use over a lifetime together...til death or death cleaning do you part.

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