I’m a big fan of the new series, “The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning,” which debuted on Peacock late April, 2023. Based on the bestselling book by Margareta Magnusson, this Amy Poehler-helmed show features a charming cast of Swedes including professional organizer Ella Engstrom, designer Johan Svenson, and psychologist Katarina Blom as they gently guide eight Americans through the death cleaning process.
This Queer Eye-meets-Konmari-meets-Fika format delivers on all the emotional and visual fronts, and yet I found three things this charmer of a series got “wrong” about death cleaning. As a grief doula who helps folks death clean IRL, I feel it’s important clarify some components of the show:
1. False: There are only THREE categories when death cleaning.
Professional organizer Ella brings three packs of stickers with her to help clients in sorting their belongings. Green stickers are for items to be kept, yellow stickers are for items to be donated or given away, and red stickers are for items to be trashed.
While the stickers are an effective tool for first-round categorizing, death cleaning is an eco-conscious process that requires much more nuanced consideration.
Items are to be repurposed, reused, or gifted whenever possible.
Items that are designated “trash” may require deliberate processing, such as electronics recycling and toxic disposal.
Items aren’t simply “donated” and done - they may require a scheduled pick up with Habitat for Humanity, attendance at a community drive, shipping to Lions Club International, and/or delivery to local schools/colleges, creative reuse centers, clothing swaps, and neighbors from your Buy Nothing group.
Items that are “for keeps” may require rewiring, reupholstery, mending, curation, and reorganization.
It is totally OK to do multiple rounds of editing and categorization to ensure each item receives it’s proper designation. The death cleaning movement encourages you to take the time and effort to handle earthly belongings responsibly.
Bottom line: PLEASE don’t rush to trash things and dump items such as light bulbs, batteries, paints, and electronics in our landfills.
2. False: Death cleaning only takes one week.
This one is a bit more obvious to everyone familiar with “TV magic” but there is just no way any homes on the TV show were transformed in one week without loads of labor from production assistants and folks behind the scenes.
It is unrealistic to hold yourself to a one-week timeline, especially considering the emotional labor involved in death cleaning. You would be wise to take into consideration any limitations of health, physical or mental ability that you may have and adjust expectations accordingly before commencing death cleaning.
The goal of death cleaning is not to rush and be done with it. Magnusson encourages practitioners to go at their own pace and with a relaxed attitude, to truly enjoy and appreciate the process and the contemplation it entails.
Magnusson also underlines that death cleaning is not a “one and done” life solution, but rather a way of living. Once you have death cleaned, the intention is to continue doing so until you die.
This is not a punishment for mortality, but rather a responsibility for being a human with a carbon footprint in relationship with loved ones who must continue to care for you and your belongings after death.
3. False: You need three cute Swedes to get the job done.
Having three cute Swedes to assist during death cleaning is a bonus, not a necessity.
Magnusson encourages people to begin death cleaning whenever inspiration arises.
She recommends inviting interested family members and friends to participate, but notes that you may also death clean entirely by yourself. No waiting, hiring, or scheduling involved - one hour alone this weekend may be a great way to jump-start the process!
You may decide to invite loved ones for certain stretches of the process, and/or engage a professional death cleaner or organizer to help keep you accountable.
Get the ball rolling, and ask for support as it is needed - Your future self will thank you!
In the end, the gentle art of death cleaning is a life-affirming practice. And that message is just one thing “The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning” show on Peacock demonstrates beautifully.
Now that you’ve read my notes on the death cleaning process, I highly recommend you check the show out.
If you do, please let me know – what do you think? Are you ready to start death cleaning?!
With love <3