Is Swedish Death Cleaning for you?
I was eager to watch the new organizing TV series, “The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning”, inspired by Margareta Magnusson’s book by the same name. Let’s call it “Death Cleaning” for short. The author and her daughter, Jane Magnusson, are listed among the executive producers, as are comedian Amy Poehler (who also narrates) and the creators of Queer Eye, if that tells you anything.
Is Swedish Death Cleaning for you? Watch this show (or read the book) and find out. It's exactly what I've been talking about for years! Click To Tweet
I was excited when the book came out, in 2017, because it put a name to something I had already been talking and writing about. I was calling it “Make decisions now so your loved ones don’t have to later.” Not quite as catchy as “death cleaning”! The idea is to declutter and downsize now so you can live a clutter-free life and so your family and friends have less to worry about on top of mourning your loss when the time comes. I also recommended the book in my own book, What’s a Photo Without the Story? How to Create Your Family Legacy. In the “Leave a Legacy, Not a Burden” section I suggest telling the stories of your things (as well as your photos), partly so family stories are not lost to time, but also so your loved ones will be able to distinguish between your treasures and ordinary items.
Normally, I watch at least a couple of episodes of each new organizing show, just so I know what everyone’s talking about. But this time I binged the whole 8-episode season the first weekend because I had already mentioned it on social media, and in my newsletter, as a reason to get the Peacock streaming service for a month, if one didn’t already have it. (Two more reasons are the new 3-part docuseries “Menendez + Menudo: Boys Betrayed” and the 8-part 2017 series “Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders.” If you don’t already know why I’m mentioning the Menendez brothers, and want to know, read this.)
Anyway, I loved the show!
First let me tell you a bit about why some organizers dislike organizing shows. Then I’ll tell you why I loved this one.
Things some organizers dislike (in general) about organizing shows:
- Some organizers end up spending more time than others do explaining to clients that they are TV shows, not reality. The shows do not (and cannot) give a sense of how long a decluttering project really takes, or how much it really costs if you hire help. In “Death Cleaning” there is very little actual work shown. And, although no crew members are shown on camera besides the 3-person death cleaning team, I can guarantee they didn’t do all of the work themselves. I, personally, have had more realistic clients. I submit that a TV-watcher who calls a professional organizer expecting the job to be completed within an hour has bigger problems than just clutter! I find the shows to be an excellent starting point (if they bring it up) for discussions with clients about their own goals and situations.
We organizers know how difficult it is for clients to establish new habits and it seems that they are often left to fend for themselves when the TV crew is finished with them. I know, from working on an episode of Hoarders (PONM Hoarders photo album) that those clients are left with the choice of several sessions with an organizer or several sessions with a therapist. But this type of client needs both, and many organizers who specialize in hoarding behavior won’t (rightly so) work with a client who isn’t also seeing a therapist. So, while support is offered, it isn’t enough. And they often cannot financially afford more.
A few things some organizers dislike about the “Death Cleaning” show:
- They, personally, would NEVER drop an F-bomb during a client session. OK, well…I don’t generally swear in professional settings, either. But I do take my cues from clients as to how much direction, humor, tough love, and emotional support I think they need from me. I’m sure there was a screening process to make sure the personalities of the Death Cleaning team and their potential clients were a match.
- They didn’t like the jokes the Swedes made about Americans. I don’t remember any of the jokes right now, so I guess they didn’t bother me. I did enjoy when Amy Poehler, the narrator, chimed in to explain (very briefly) a new Swedish word or concept.
- It wasn’t their “cup of tea”. OK, Episode 1 starts right out with an extensive NSFW (Not Safe For Work….or children, for that matter) personal collection and ends with drag queens. I’m not sure why they chose to start with this particular episode unless it was to filter out those for whom the entire series would not be their “cup of tea”. My biggest objection — I really think they dropped the ball here — is that they never told us what they ended up doing with the NSFW collection! I’m sure that if they had found a unique home for these items, or even if they’d tossed them, they would have said so. I suspect most of the collection ended up in a storage bin (or several bins) in the basement, on shelves such as they provided in most of the episodes for things that are personal or sentimental but didn’t need to be cluttering up the client’s living space.
BTW, it’s OK if “Death Cleaning” isn’t your “cup of tea”. In my blog post Those Magic Little Words (that help you get organized) I wrote about about different “Magic Words” appealing to different people at different times.
What I loved about the “Death Cleaning” show
Think of a friend who isn’t perfect — and who is? — but who still has many fine qualities. I get why some organizers don’t, and won’t, like it. But here are a few of reasons why I did!
- At the end of each episode I felt HOPE for the client. As opposed to the DESPAIR I feel for the clients in Hoarders. Which is why I rarely watch it. Maybe I feel that way because I worked on an episode of Hoarders where the client started re-hoarding her home right in front of our very eyes before we left. Ugh! The clients on “Death Cleaning” are different — more situationally disorganized than chronic, and more willing to part with stuff, but not sure how. They really seemed to enjoy their (albeit roller-coaster) emotional experiences overall, and genuinely appreciated the help they got from the Swedish Death Cleaning Team. Which, in any case, focused more on the client’s remaining LIFE than on their inevitable death.
- I loved the diversity of clients and the variety of situations featured in the show. My favorite episode is #4, about the woman who had collected a massive amount of Latino, Chicana, and LGBTQIA art, much of which they successfully donated to museums and galleries. She also had been part of a famous lesbian community in Kansas City and had tons of historical photos to document that time in history which were donated to the Gay and Lesbian Archives (a field trip to which, in itself, was worth watching the episode). I liked it because helping people figure out what to do with their photos is one of my things, and especially those without children who think they have no one to leave their stuff to.
- I like the Swedish Death Cleaning team — Johan (the designer), Ella (the organizer) and Kat (the psychologist). Having always been drawn to the psychological aspects of organizing, my favorite was Kat, who — yes, gently – explored the issues each client was facing to help them make decisions that were life-affirming and mentally freeing. My biggest question about Ella, the organizer was: Just how many pairs of glasses does she own? Her wardrobe and accessories were like another character in the show. I guarantee she’s not working up a sweat in them!
- Last, but not least, my 85-year-old aunt — straight-laced, church-going, never dropped an F-bomb within my earshot — said at Saturday Family Breakfast that she was watching it, was entertained by it, and that it was giving her ideas of what to do with her stuff. That last part was music to my ears, since I’m the one who will someday have to deal with whatever possessions she hasn’t already dealt with… if I outlive her, that is.
NOTE: While each episode has the common theme of living with less clutter, each one also had lessons that one would have to watch the entire series (or read the book) to fully appreciate.
More related links:
Watch the Death Cleaning trailer here (Peacock)
What’s a Photo Without the Story? How to Create Your Family Legacy, by Hazel Thornton
Go With the Flow! The Clutter Flow Chart Workbook, by Hazel Thornton
10 Silly Things Organizers Argue About (blog post)
My Kondo-lences and sincere Kon-gratulations! (blog post)
‘Death Cleaning’ isn’t as scary as it sounds! (4 short book reviews) — I wrote this back when the Death Cleaning book was first released. It includes four short, related book reviews: The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning, by Margareta Magnusson, They Left Us Everything: A Memoir, by Plum Johnson, Don’t Toss My Memories in the Trash: A Step-by-Step Guide to Helping Seniors Downsize, Organize, and Move, by Vickie Dellaquila, Clever Girl’s Guide to Living with Less: Break Free from Your Stuff, Even When Your Head and Heart Get in the Way, by Kathy Vines.
Speaking of Kathy Vines, here’s how she summed up the series in her recent social media post:
ALL THAT SAID, viewing the emotional process of watching these people release themselves of the burden of ownership and accumulation and inheritance and all the reasons THINGS have filled their life, as they try to swim to the surface and find the life they truly want, was all 100% genuine. I’ve seen these reactions in people’s lives, and their emotion was authentic. I absolutely believe that some people out there will be FULLY INSPIRED to inventory their life and their STUFF and start to feel like they can take steps to create the life they want, and let the STUFF go free.
Kathy also wrote: “Ella is the opposite of Marie Kondo, and I’m sure both would feel fully complimented by that statement.”
Hahaha — agreed!
There are a number of “Swedish Death Cleaning” books out there now. Since dostadning is an actual word meaning “death cleaning” in Swedish, I suppose it’s allowed for there to be multiple books about it just as there are many English language books about organizing and decluttering (like Go with the Flow! the Clutter Flow Chart Workbook). Anyone’s book dated after 2017, though, which uses “Gentle” in the title and/or artwork reminiscent of Margareta Magnusson’s original cover is just copying her.
Have you read the book?
Have you seen the show?
Please share your thoughts with us in the comments below!
- Copyright 2023 by Hazel Thornton, Organized for Life and Beyond
- Hazel is an author, genealogist, and retired home and office organizer.
- Hung Jury: The Diary of a Menendez Juror
- What’s a Photo Without the Story? How to Create Your Family Legacy
- Go With the Flow! The Clutter Flow Chart Workbook
- Feel free to link directly to this post! Click here to ask about other uses.