Why You Need to Start Death Cleaning Today

Have you ever thought you might be a burden to others?

My mother passed away last February, and I'm glad for her sake that she suffered from dementia.  She never knew how much care she needed during the last two years of her life, and especially during the last six months, when she could no longer do much of anything for herself.  She would never have wanted to require that level of care – she would have felt that it made her a burden.

None of us wants to be a burden on our loved ones, either at the end of our life or afterward.  Yet that's exactly what we might be – without even realizing it.

happy older woman

Here's a simple question.

What will happen to all of your stuff when you die?  I don't mean your property or other assets in your will.  I'm talking about your stuff – the stuff in your house right now.  Your clothes and shoes and furniture and kitchenware and books and mementos.

Some of that is stuff you need, because you use it every day, week, or month.  Other stuff is just sitting in cupboards and closets and under the bed.  Once you die, all of it has to go somewhere.  And if you leave it, that means someone you love – your surviving spouse, your sibling, or your child – has to go through all of it and decide what to do with each item.  

Imagine it, or if you've had to do that chore for someone else, remember what it was like and how you felt about it.

Which scenario would you choose?

Maybe you were lucky and didn't find the clutter and accumulation of decades.  Maybe your loved one left clear instructions, or at least suggestions, about what to do with everything.  Maybe you had a lovely time reminiscing with other family members as you cleared out a house in a matter of a weekend or two.

But maybe you walked into a typical home, a home with many thousands of items, most of them unused for a long time.  Maybe you felt overwhelmed, frustrated, burdened, even a bit angry as you were forced to spend weeks or months sorting through the detritus of a lifetime.

In Sweden there's a custom called death cleaning, described by Margareta Magnusson in her book The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Free Yourself and Your Family from a Lifetime of Clutter.*

*This blog is reader-supported.  When you buy through my links, I may earn a small commission.  

Death cleaning lets you remove 
unnecessary things
and make your home nice and orderly
when you think the time is coming closer
for you to leave the planet.

Margareta Magnusson

Typically when you declutter, you remove excess belongings in order to make room and time for the things that have value to you.  You unburden yourself so that you're free to pursue the goals and activities which bring you joy and fulfillment.  

Death cleaning goes a step further, since it removes the burden from others of deciding what to do with your possessions.

Life becomes more pleasant and comfortable when we downsize.

It's a little like staging your home for sale.  When you stage a home, you keep only the essentials so that prospective buyers experience the amenities your home has to offer.  You're still living there, so the house isn't empty, but it's clean, attractive, and spacious.  Like death cleaning, staging creates what Magnusson calls "a permanent form of organization that makes your everyday life run more smoothly."  

Realtors and professional home stagers suggest that you reduce your personal items in each room by 50% or more compared to what was there before you decided to list the house.  Sometimes homeowners go through the staging process and decide they like their home better than they ever did before!

6 death cleaning tasks

1.  Declutter.

Pare down to your essential needs and wants, and create a home for each item you keep.

I often ask myself, "Will anyone I know be happier if I save this?"

Margareta Magnusson

2.  Choose heirlooms.

After you declutter, decide which remaining items have special significance.  For example, my father left his father's early 20th century microscope; my mother left the engraved locket her father gave her when she graduated 8th grade.  Leave details about your wishes for these treasures, which might include:

  • furniture
  • musical instruments
  • art
  • wedding rings or other jewelry
  • photographs
  • letters or diaries
  Your loved ones will appreciate the story behind these items, so write it now!

heirloom diary
Now is the time to have conversations about whether or not your relatives want certain items at all.  Their decision is not a reflection of their feelings for you, so do not make anyone feel an obligation.  Remember you're trying to remove burdens, not create them.

3.  Create a donation inventory.

You don't expect your loved ones to keep the majority of your belongings after your death, so make a list by category which explains where you want things to be donated.  Consider your:

  • auto
  • furniture
  • clothing, shoes, and accessories
  • kitchenware
  • linens
  • books
  • artwork and decorative items

4.  Get financial affairs in order.

  • If you don't have a will, decide where you want your assets to go after you die, and invest a little money to have one made.  
  • Make sure that one or two of your close relatives is authorized to deal with these if you become seriously ill or pass away.

5.  Keep your secrets.

If you want to, fill a box with mementos to be thrown away after your death.  Magnusson writes that she kept a box with "things that have absolutely no value to anyone else, but enormous value for me."  Only you know what might belong in this box.

6.  Plan your funeral.

Create a document that describes your specific wishes for a memorial service and burial.  Share this information with a loved one.  List your preferences for:
  • location
  • officiant
  • music
  • readings
  • flowers
  • attendees

Death is a reality, and we do ourselves and our families a favor by preparing for it rather than pretending it will never come.  

Whether you are 40, 60, 80, or more, healthy or not, think about your legacy.  Write your three sentence eulogy.  You want to be remembered for your accomplishments, humor, wisdom, and love – not for the piles of junk you left as a burden on your family.

Want more?
  You'll love my book Uncluttered: How Minimalism Can Help You Thrive, available on Amazon.  Uncluttered is a comprehensive handbook for a simpler life – not a one-size-fits-all approach, but a creative, encouraging, multi-faceted guide to help you:

  • remove the stuff that's bogging you down
  • uncover a cleaner, more spacious home that welcomes and supports you
  • escape the consumer treadmill
  • overcome bad habits and practice better ones
  • highlight your favorite things and memories
  • find time for what you care about
  • gain focus and peace
  • and much more!

Updated July 2022


  1. I have a mother who is boarderline a horder and I wreally dread the day I have I have to empty her house. She loves her Things intensely and often tells me that she is afraid that I'm going to throw some of her Things. I try to be honest and tell her that since I am a minimalist I don't want all her stuff when she is gone, but that I love her With all my heart. I sometimes wonder if she would be better og if I lied and told her that I would treasure all of her stuff forever!

    1. You're in a delicate situation. You treasure her NOW, and will treasure her memory forever. Keep reminding her of that! Her stuff is just stuff, it's not her.


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