I Tried Swedish Death Cleaning—Here's How My Family Reacted

What happens when a busy mother of three puts the latest organizing trend to the test? 

Swedish Death Cleaning Clothes
Photo: Jamie Grill/Getty Images

Just like dieting, I've tried all the trendy decluttering tips to downsize my life. I did the 40 bags in 40 days challenge—and quit after bag number 13. I even tried the celebrated Marie Kondo method of getting rid of everything that doesn't "spark joy." The problem? I live with three small kids, and so my idea of what sparks joy versus my toddler's is vastly different.

I had never considered cleaning as a means of philosophical expression, but then I read about Swedish death cleaning and I realized right away that this was the tactic I needed to get my life—and my clutter-prone family—organized once and for all.

The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning by Margareta Magnusson ($13, amazon.com) describes a way to organize your earthly possessions before you die so that your family won't have to fight or stress over what to do with the things you leave behind. And even though I am not near death, as a busy married mother of three, I can totally see the benefit of adopting this unusual take on organizing.

I bought a copy of the book and swiftly I set to work on cleaning out my home. First, I went through the wardrobes of everyone in my house. Magnusson recommends making two piles, one to keep and one to toss. I was astonished to find that my "pile to toss" was far bigger than the pile to keep. In one afternoon, I obliterated my laundry chores. I'm no longer tethered to my laundry room and that has made me a much happier mom.

Next, I purchased cute, collapsible cloth totes and gave one to each of my three kids. They were tasked (with some parental help) with putting only the toys they like to play with in the bags. All of the other toys got donated. The end-of-day clean up just got 10,000 times easier and tear-free.

Curiously, my kids no longer complain about being bored and I chalk that up to them not being surrounded by a mountain of choices. Asking them to pick up their toys has gone from being the most dreaded part of my day to a quick 10-minutes of seeing who can fill their tote the quickest.

My husband and I put together what we are calling our "death kit," which includes everything our family would ever need in case we perish. From banking and mortgage records to a list of passwords and instructions on what to do with our few possessions that weren't donated. And honestly, it feels so good to have that done. My husband reports feeling less stressed now that we have most of our affairs in order.

I also created a personal box where I stuffed all the weird and ultra-personal stuff that may mean a lot to me but may be totally meaningless or even embarrassing to my family after I die. The box is labeled, "If I die and you find this, you must throw it away, no peeking or I'll haunt you…seriously."

What Swedish death cleaning gets totally right is asking its participants to create a simple life that is easily managed, thus leaving room for joy. My family and I don't need to surround ourselves with expensive clutter in order to be happy. In fact, we're finding that whittling back is giving us the breathing room to be free of constantly cleaning, and instead we can spend more time together doing the things we actually love.

My home feels less cluttered, easier to clean and manage, and my family is calmer and more eager to play together. I credit all of these changes to the marvelous philosophy of Swedish death cleaning.

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