Posted in Navel-gazing

The gentle art of Swedish death cleaning

Today’s blog post is about decluttering.

I’ve realised that I’m addicted to books. As addictions go this one isn’t actively harmful, and I indulge it despite my relatively financially challenged circumstances because I happily buy secondhand books from charity shops at any opportunity.

Because I have a lot of books and a lack of space in which to store them – plus (it seems) a lot of other stuff as well, I’m perennially interested in good decluttering techniques. In the past, attempts to declutter in a typical room-by-room manner have become unstuck because it’s very hard to keep up motivation for an entire house – plus I tend to get sidetracked if I find old letters or diaries. By the time I’ve wallowed in my youthful attempts to write several hours have passed, and the room I’m trying to tidy remains a pig sty.

A couple of years ago I read Marie Kondo’s The life-changing magic of tidying up, and it was quite helpful. The best thing I took from it was Kondo’s recommendation of decluttering by category, rather than by room. She also suggested starting with less emotive categories first, rather than getting bogged down with old photos and love letters. This was good advice. I merrily cleared through my wardrobe, passed on a lot of household items we no longer needed, and even managed to part with a lot of books – especially books that I’d owned for years and had never actually read.

The whole ‘spark joy’ element of Kondo’s method set my teeth on edge slightly – if the day comes that a saucepan or a vase ‘sparks joy’ for me, I hope people will lead me gently to a friendly doctor and get me the good drugs – but I could see her point: only keep stuff that really makes you happy. The main motivator for decluttering was therefore to enhance one’s own happiness.

The book I read last week, The gentle art of Swedish death cleaning, take a different approach in that it encourages the reader to consider who will be left to deal with their worldly possessions when they’ve died. It sounds morbid, but it’s actually very practical, which is why it appealed to me. The book’s author, Margareta Magnusson, is an older lady (several times throughout her book she refers to herself as ‘aged between 80 and 100’, and has had a busy life as an artist and a mother of five, living all over the world before returning to her native Sweden. The death of her husband prompted her to downsize her home, which led her to consider why, how, and when a person should do a bit of ‘death cleaning’.


Like Kondo, Magnusson recommends decluttering on a category-by-category basis, and leaving things like letters and photographs until last. Her approach is both more and less sentimental than Kondo’s ‘spark joy’ philosophy. She urges you not to hold onto unneeded items merely because of their nostalgic value. However, she does recognise that items can mean a lot to people. Her way of honouring that, Rather than retaining things as Kondo recommends, Magnusson’s way of honouring sentimental value is to suggest that, rather than waiting until you’ve died before you pass on lovely things to friends and family members who might like them: do it now, if you no longer need or want the item. You can then enjoy the pleasure of being philanthropic, and the secondhand pleasure your recipient gets from the object. She believes we owe it to our family members not to leave them a chaotic house full of random stuff, to be sifted through while in mourning – far better to part with your extra stuff earlier, so you enjoy a calm house, and others enjoy the stuff.

Magnusson’s book is written primarily for people going through the stage of life she’s recently experienced: she envisages that her approach is useful for older people, who might actually spare an occasional thought for what will happen after they’ve died. However, I’m far from my dotage and still found that a lot of it resonated with me. I know that I have some objects that I like, but really don’t use or need. It makes sense to me to look for opportunities to pass them on. I have set myself a ‘Saturday Decluttering Session’ challenge this year, in which I do some decluttering every week. It’s good to fill at least one bag each time and drop it off at our local charity shop.

Reading Magnusson’s book has led me to think about why I like decluttering. I’m a frustrated minimalist – not that you’d ever guess that, when you see how many books I have – and I’ve known for a long time that clutter causes me stress, and tidy rooms calm me down. We don’t have enough storage in our current house, so the only way to keep things tidy and calming is to have fewer things. This sometimes feels like I’m trying to empty a swimming pool with a teaspoon, given that we have two young children with a lot of toys, but what I can control is my own stuff.

Decluttering also teaches me about myself, because every time I do it I think about the objects I have: why did I buy that thing? Why don’t I use it? Would I miss it? It makes me reflect on the gap between the person I’d like to be, and the person I actually am. For example, I love beautiful linen – things like vintage embroidered table napkins. I have some napkins that fit this description tucked away in a box. I’ve never used them, because it would never occur to me to actually get them out and use them when serving cake. I am not that type of grownup, and it’s probably time that I accept it. However, my friend Jane is exactly the kind of woman who would use something lovely like this – I know that because, when we visit her and her family in Wellington, she does serve cake with gorgeous fabric napkins. When I find the box my napkins are in, I’m going to channel my inner Magnusson and send them to Jane. I’ll get to enjoy them when we visit.

Decluttering teaches me what makes me happy. Books make me very happy, and I will keep buying them, because a day without a book in my hand is a day half-lived, regardless of how much uni readings might keep me occupied. Colours, and the opportunity to organise things by colour, also makes me very happy, so I will shop and arrange my belongings according to their colour whenever possible. I arrange books by colour, my wardrobe contents by colour – recently I even sorted my phone apps by colour. Arranging things by colour has a curiously calming effect on me, so I don’t care that other people find it weird.

If you’re looking for some decluttering guidance, I think I’d recommend Magnusson over Kondo, both because I found the writing more charming and witty, and also because I like the idea of thinking about how your loved and no-longer-needed belongings can find a happier home elsewhere. Kondo’s writing is also charming, but Magnusson’s book is peppered with reflections on life that make me wish I could meet her for a chat.

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