Why we should all master the art of döstädning

This Swedish decluttering technique could save a lot of heartache in the future.

Anyone who has lost a loved one knows only too well how it feels when you must sort through a lifetime’s worth of belongings that aren’t your own. What to keep, what to give away, what to throw away – each decision is tinged with emotion. Whether that’s sadness, joy, or frustration, it’s a task that never gets easier.

hands holding beads next to photos on tableCredit: Shutterstock/Kittyfly
Mastering the art of döstädning is a kindness to others

That’s why, when we came across The Swedish Art of Ageing Well, the new book from Swedish author Margareta Magnusson, we were reminded of the important messages from her first book, Döstädning – The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning.


What is döstädning?

Don’t worry – death cleaning isn’t as sad as it sounds

In a nutshell, döstädning is all about appreciating and enjoying all you have so you can be free to enjoy the next stage of your life, without worrying about what you are leaving behind.

With spring cleaning season well under way, it’s likely you’re already taking stock of your belongings. And if you’ve followed our decluttering advice or you’re already a fan of the Marie Kondo technique, the good news is you’re already on the right path.

Magnusson explains that death cleaning is less about getting rid of things, and more a reminder that it’s never too soon to start taking control of your possessions.

“After all, death cleaning is mostly about getting organised, not dying,” she explains. “[It’s] not about dusting or mopping up, it is about a permanent form of organisation that makes your everyday life run more smoothly.”

And let’s be honest, if we’re going to take advice at this stage in our lives, who better to turn to than someone with 80-100 years of experience? (Margareta has yet to reveal her true age.)

Dö in Swedish means ‘death’ and städning is ‘cleaning’. The act of döstädning is not new in Sweden, and certainly not as sinister as this literal translation sounds. It’s understood to mean that when you or someone else does a good, thorough clean and gets rid of things, it makes life easier and makes homes feel less crowded.

It does not necessarily have anything to do with your age or death, but often does. Magnusson says if you’ve reached the stage where a drawer won’t close or your cupboards are bulging, that’s when you need to recognise it’s time to start – whatever your age.

25 death cleaning tips

Magnusson’s steps to decluttering – Swedish style

1. Start with the basement or attic

If you have one, these spaces are where we tend to temporarily store belongings until we next need them. The reality is, we often never use them again. Declutter these first.

2. Share your plans with others

Tell friends and family what you are doing. There will always be someone in your life who needs something or knows someone who does. Your belongings may find a new home more easily than you think.

3. Don’t start with pictures, photographs or letters

They carry too many emotions and you want to be able to enjoy that part of the process, not rush it.


4. Start with the larger items first

There’s often less of these making it an easier job to sort them out quickly.

5. Categories are important in the process

Everything you own will likely fall into a category, such as ‘clothes’ or ‘books’. Write a list of categories that covers the items you have in your home, stick to it and start with an easy category.

“An easy category is one that is extensive and without too much sentimental connection.” Magnusson

6. Clothes are normally your best starting point

Create two piles – one to keep and one to get rid of.

Recycling box full of clothes and textiles.Credit: Shutterstock/Mariia Korneeva
Curating your clothes can be an easy way to start the process.

“When I was young,” says Magnusson, “I read a great article on how to arrange a low-maintenance wardrobe. The point was that it was not the amount of clothing that makes a person well-dressed. The article was all about choosing clothing carefully and then organising it well.

“I’ve actually lived with this advice all my life. In my opinion, all garments in a wardrobe should look good together and you should be able to mix and exchange them with each other.

“Only keep those that you really feel you will wear, or if the sentimental connection is very strong.”

7. Tidy up as part of your daily clean

Invest in a cloth bag or apron with a large pocket to use when cleaning. Whenever you see something that’s not in its rightful home, pop it in your bag or pocket and put it where it belongs.

“Mess is an unnecessary source of irritation. Give everything a place and you won’t feel angry, irritated, or desperate when leaving the house.”

8. Use your hallway well

From coat hooks to storage baskets, an organised hallway is key to a happy home.

blue coat benchCredit: The Furniture Market
Organise your hall for a feeling of calm.
Shop the look: Westbury Blue Hallway Tidy, £649, The Furniture Market

“In a hallway it is always helpful to have hooks for keys on a wall and some baskets or boxes for gloves, hats and scarves,” advises Magnusson.

“If you live in a house with several floors, it saves time to place a basket on the landing of every floor for things that have to go up or down.”

Our favourite bit of advice? “Make sure never to put your foot in the basket.”

9. Gift items rather than buying new

If you’re heading to a dinner party, take a gift of a treasured piece of crockery or set of table linen. “Life will become more pleasant and comfortable if we get rid of some of the abundance,” says Magnusson.

10. Ask for advice

It can be easy to assume that older items have no value. Magnusson talks about photographs that only seem to be about memories but may in fact hold historical worth. Always check with a family member if you’re not sure.

11. Allow time for the task

Magnusson says she allows one week per room. It’s not always needed but if you have time left over, spend it on yourself. “Take your time and proceed at a pace that suits you,” she advises.

group of 5 mature friends sat playing chess at a tableCredit: Shutterstock/Prostock-Studio
Taking time out from the task is essential

12. Find a good time to tell your family

Although the subject of getting rid of possessions can be difficult to discuss with family and friends, Magnusson suggests that holiday gatherings are often a good time. While she doesn’t recommend talking about it in the middle of celebrations, because holidays are often events built around excess, taking the opportunity of a holiday to talk about how to reduce excess can be an easy way to start the conversation.

13. Remember why you’re doing this

Keep reminding yourself that you’re doing this for yourself and your family. It will help make the task less onerous.

14. Create a simple list for each room

Your list should have four columns: giveaway, throw, and move. Complete the list as you go along and when you’ve finished, put the lists with your personal paperwork so they can be easily referenced if someone else needs to check them.

Woman writing in notepadCredit: Shutterstock / Gabi Moisa

15. Measure before you move

If you’re downsizing, make sure you know the measurements of the furniture you want to take with you so that you can check that each piece will fit before you move.

16. Invest in a paper shredder

Paper shredders are a key piece of equipment when it comes to decluttering. They ensure sensitive information won’t fall into the wrong hands.

17. Celebrate your eco-friendliness

Celebrate the fact that in decluttering and simplifying your life, you are also benefiting the environment. We live in a world of mass-consumerism, but you’re helping to reduce this by donating and recycling.

“Our planet is very small. It may perish under the weight of our consumerism. Recycling and donating can help.”

If you’re looking to find an easy way to donate your items, many charities such as the British Heart Foundation offer a free collection service. However, it’s always worth checking in advance what they will accept. Any upholstered furniture for example will need to have a fire label.

Other charities offering collection include Oxfam, Sue Ryder and for clothes you can use a generic charity collection via Collect My Clothes.

Alternatively, it might be worth asking around if you have a women’s refuge nearby. Or, if you think you may have items of value, Cash Cow will give you money once they have assessed them. Even if you donate the money you raise to charity, it’s still a better option than simply throwing items away.

For clothes that you don’t think will be suitable for sale, find out where your nearest clothes recycling bank is.

18. Think before you gift

What may seem generous can in fact add to the burden. “Don’t offer things that do not fit the recipient’s taste or the space in which they live…,” advises Magnusson. “If they think your feelings might be hurt, it may be difficult for them to say no.”

19. If it was your secret, then keep it that way

If you have items or belongings that may cause someone distress to find them when helping to sort out your home, then maybe it’s time to remove them now. Think of it as your gift to them.

“It is perhaps a thoughtful gift to those loved ones who may be cleaning for us later if we do a little bit of our own cleaning now,” says Magnusson.

20. Presents don’t have to be kept

Don’t feel guilty for not keeping presents. The memory is often in the gifting experience, rather than the item itself.

“To be grateful and happy for a present when you first receive it is something different because that gratitude is not connected to the thing itself but to the giver,” says Magnusson.

21. Gift yourself a wander down memory lane

Photos and letters will naturally take time to go through. Make sure you allow yourself enough time to enjoy the trip down memory lane. Don’t worry if you laugh or cry, it’s all part of the experience.

22. Store important information safely

You still have use for a little black book. In this instance, use it to store all the details someone might need to access for you if you weren’t able. Remember to keep it locked away safely if you choose to do this.

23. Embrace tech

To emphasise the value of storing information digitally, Magnusson tells us how she found boxes of slides filled with photographic memories. She bought a small film scanner and spent time uploading them all onto her computer. She was then bought USB sticks and downloaded all the images onto the sticks as a Christmas gift for her children. These priceless memories would otherwise have been lost.

mature woman and younger adult sitting closely on sofa looking at a mobile phone and smilingCredit: Shutterstock/Fizkes
Sharing photo memories is priceless

24. Learn to let go

While it’s ok to keep hold of items you really can’t bear to part with, sometimes you have to learn to let go.

“Sometimes you just have to give cherished things away with the hope that they end up with someone who will create new memories of their own,” Magnusson explains.

25. Treat yourself to a ‘Throw Away Box’

A shoe box should be big enough. It’s a place to temporarily store those little items that mean the world to you, but are of little value to others. Mark it for disposal if required, but it gives you a precious and accessible box of memories you can enjoy whenever you desire.

Magnusson admits: “There are a few things I would like to save for myself alone… old love letters, programmes, memories from travelling.”

Less Kondo – more caring

Magnusson’s book has certainly given us a lot to think about, and although her approach shares some similarities with Marie Kondo’s methods for decluttering, there’s an extra layer of warmth and appreciation for life contained within the pages that we love.

We’ll end with some final words of wisdom from the Swedish author.

“Death cleaning is something you can do for yourself, for your own satisfaction. One’s own pleasure and the chance to find meaning and memory, is the most important thing.

“It is a delight to go through things and remember their worth.”

If you’re inspired by Magnusson approach and want more tips prior to your next declutter, pick up a copy of Döstädning – The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning on Amazon for £7.74.

Magnusson has also written a book on The Swedish Art of Ageing Well, available for £11.99 at Amazon. It’s full of sage advice on what to wear and what to eat… and what not to worry about.


Sarah Harley

Written by Sarah Harley she/her


Since first picking up a paintbrush and experiencing the joy of re-decorating her bedroom in a questionable red, white and grey scheme as a young teenager, Sarah Harley was hooked on the world of interior design. This obsession even led to a real life ‘Grand Designs’ project in 2005 when she donned a pink hard hat and appeared on TV screens, project managing the renovation and extension of a Grade II listed 17th century Folly in South Wales.

Throughout her career, Sarah has gained an array of experience in several different roles, ranging from copywriting, PR, events management and photography to interior design and home staging. With her two passions being the written word and the joys of a beautifully designed home, Sarah’s mission is to open the door on the world of interiors, inviting readers in to help them work their way through the vast choice of products, ideas and trends so that their own homes can reach their full potential.

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