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Book Review

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

By Margareta Magnusson
Scribner, 2018, 128 pp.
Reviewed by Shelley D. Coelho, Esq.

Margaret Magnusson provides a pragmatic approach to döstädning, or “death cleaning,” in her recent book, The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Free Yourself and Your Family From a Lifetime of Clutter. Magnusson, who professes to be “aged between eighty and one hundred,” prefers to deal with disposing of her belongings herself, instead of placing the burden on her family after her death. She relates her experiences of clearing out after the death of her mother and husband and philosophizes that most people will not want to “take care of what you didn’t take care of yourself.”

Magnusson’s approach includes doing the work in a meaningful way, such as leaving items with those who will most appreciate them, starting with the easy items (e.g., clothes) and saving the most difficult items (e.g., photos) for last. She writes of keeping a small box of items that are only meaningful to her and marking the box “throw away” to spare her family from having to take the time to sort items that are meaningless to them and others.

With a lighthearted approach, Magnusson mentions taking care of the “secrets” (Grandfather’s ladies’ underwear and Grandma’s 15 dildos), but in doing so reminds us that there may be secrets that, if discovered, could hurt those we leave behind. Although the idea of this book is to bring our attention to eliminating clutter and making the clearing out process easier on our loved ones when we are gone, she also speaks of how good it makes her feel to clear out. After all, she relates, this isn’t just about things — it is also about memories. It is something we do for ourselves, and if started soon enough (she suggests at age 65), it allows us to contemplate the history of our belongings, recalling the memories and considering the worth of the items. She suggests sharing the story of the retained items with others so that they can also appreciate their worth and history.

Magnusson invites us to ask ourselves, “Will anyone I know be happier if I save this?” If the answer is “no,” she suggests sending the item to the shredder or donation bin. She further postulates that, if clearing out is left to others to accomplish at the time of our passing, the items that we appreciated and would likely be appreciated by others will simply land in the dump. She speaks briefly of the planet perishing under “the weight of consumerism.”

Magnusson suggests that it is our duty to take care of our possessions and that, in doing so, we may minimize discord among family members, protect the planet, simplify our lives, foster a greater appreciation of the possessions we keep or share, and make the process of clearing out after we die easier on those left behind. The book is easy to read and is filled with useful ideas, especially for those who find it difficult to part with belongings.

This book is relevant to elder law attorneys because we often counsel clients on the very subject of how to dispose of someone’s belongings. In our practices, we see too often the stress related to the handling of tangible goods. We have all heard stories of a family member who tucked valuable items away in the most unlikely places, families that were broken apart when many family members wanted the same item, and the many dollars spent on the disposal of goods. The idea of döstädning is something for us to consider and possibly discuss with our clients.

About the Reviewer

Shelley D. Coelho is an attorney with offices in Easton, Massachusetts. She concentrates her practice in the areas of estate planning, estate and trust administration, elder law, guardianships and conservatorships, special needs planning, business planning, and taxation.