Döstädning- Swedish Death Cleaning

The most difficult thing to explain is something that is a life process, one can not simply put “life” into a sentence and most often, process involves feeling. I can explain the beginning feelings of Dumpster Archeology, and then tell you where it ends up in it’s maturity, much like a full life with the ups and downs of existing, but you must also understand the feelings connected to it. 

Picture for a moment your elderly relative, whose health is failing and those questions about death and what happens ….when it happens. It is often questions that are left unfinished until death has arrived, they have no more input in the outcome of possessions, heirlooms, burial and their Legacy. So often it is left to those who shared their Earthly time and bare the responsibility. Sadly some people are forgotten almost as soon as the body has gone cold.  That feeling is treated slightly different in Sweden.

The uniquely Swedish practice of ‘Döstädning’ (death-cleaning) is a method of decluttering based on which objects will be of value to loved ones after your death. Döstädning or death-cleaning is different from ‘dödsstädning’ (after-death cleaning), which takes place after someone has died when family members are left to sort through their belongings. In contrast, döstädning takes place while we’re still alive, and is a way of getting rid of unnecessary objects so that loved ones aren’t left to deal with the mess.

“Beautiful things such as an African wooden bird, strange things like a singing magnetic pig, and funny things like a solar-powered waving bear are all things that I adore. My vice is really things. It took me a while to understand this, but you can enjoy all these things without owning them. Even though this may sometimes seem quite hard to do, training yourself to enjoy only looking at things, instead of buying them, is very nice and also a good practice. You really can’t take everything with you, so maybe it is better to not try to own it all.”
― Margareta Magnusson, The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Free Yourself and your Family from a Lifetime of Clutter

Death cleaning — which the official Dictionary.com recently added defines it as “the process of cleaning and decluttering one’s home so as to spare others, especially family members, from the chore of it after one’s death. Which is a literal translation of the Swedish term döstädning, a combination of dö meaning “to die” and städning, meaning “to tidy, clean, clean up, clean out.” Death cleaning, both the term and practice, were popularized in the U.S. with the release of the English translation of the book “Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning” by Swedish artist Margareta Magnusson.

“My motto for cleaning is simply: If you don’t love it, lose it. If you don’t use it, lose it, My death cleaning has brought back wonderful memories. I wish for other people to have the same experience.” Margareta Magnusson

When I use the term “Death Purge”, I mean “the collective dumping of a recently Deceased human of their personal possessions without any selective attempt at preserving”… like when the landlord knows that no family is coming and simply tosses out the apartment of the elderly.   That…right there… is the “first feeling” of Dumpster Archeology. A sort of sickness and sorrow that comes with personal empathy. Understanding the sadness and allowing it to wash over you like a French film. Thankfully this is a process, and an interception occurs.  A Dumpster Archeologist is there that day, the Death Purge occurs and saves the possessions, art, history and family photos just in the nick of time.

The distinction between these three phrases is slight but important. Like a process or a spectrum.

  • Death Cleaning is on one side, as the Swedish throw a party, and a loved one, hands to the younger children those special items, those family photographs and old items that might still be useful for another generation. The story is told, memory safely placed in another human consciousness. It is clean and purposeful.
  • After Death Cleaning is the neutral space between, sometimes a will, a conversation and division occurs between the relatives. People are there who care, or don’t care. It is almost always a mess.
  • Death Purge is incriminate and lacks any emotional resonance. The dumpster is the last place before all the stories are gone, and objects lose their meaning. The remaining stories and legacy of a departed soul is eliminated from consciousness.

   Dumpster Archeology was an idea that grew from a tiny seed. The very first Death Purge was found in 2012 with two Wine bottles and the unknown story of a South France Wine tour of 1979, from a deceased elderly woman in my South City neighborhood That was the birth of feeling, that something truly valuable was being lost and like my childhood hero, Indiana Jones, I was uncovering a history.  I suppose I should have known that this “feeling” and idea would exist in other languages. Döstädning is such a pleasant idea and I wish more of America would adopt it, recycling and honoring a lifetime of process and living with a Death Cleaning Party.

The adverse reality I discover is less pleasant, and the only word that makes sense to me is – purge. Dumpster Archeology was created out of thin air and as a thing, that was a thing, but never had a phrase to describe it. Death Purge is also a thing, even back to the ancient cultures that have no historical record and living soul who understand the language. The Australian aboriginals had a name for the last speaker of a local dialect. They called them a “mute” and not that they couldn’t speak, or speak their mind, it was that they were the last of their Tribe and the last person to speak a dead language, and no one could understand a word they said.

What came about as I dug into these discovered Death Purges was quite shocking even to me. The shift from finding treasure, to discovering my own humanity through the left over death purges is a journey it will take a while to explain, but in the end, what I learned is nothing short of a miracle.  The stories wanted to be told, and the feelings grew richer and more personal.