Organizers Comment on Death Cleaning

gentle art book
Recently, a group of organizing and productivity professionals formed a book club to discuss the “hot organizing books” our clients are reading. We decided to start with The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning by Margaret Magnusson. This little book, released in early 2018, garnered a fair amount of attention, perhaps initially because of the intriguing title. Given the fact that not everyone reads books on getting organized, I thought I would share some of the comments and thoughts that arose during our meeting.

Magnusson offers some tips that our group of experts agreed are relevant for anyone trying to de-clutter, including:

  • When getting started, work in areas where you will have some quick wins. For example, begin by pulling out large items (e.g. unwanted furniture, unused appliances, broken lawn tools, etc.) This can free up space quickly and build momentum. Additionally, focus on starting with items that have little sentimental value, such as expired food or accumulated bathroom supplies. Don’t start off with love letters and photographs that might be difficult to sort through and leave you tempted to quit and keep everything.


  • Start early. Once you’ve purged the items with little emotional value, you can move on to the sentimental things – which can actually be a pleasant trip down memory lane if you give yourself enough time. Magnusson suggests spending a few moments with objects “one last time” before getting rid of them. It is never too soon to start, while waiting too long (e.g. two weeks before you move) will prevent you from what can be a special experience.


  • Tell your family what you are doing. Let them know you are going to be working on clearing out, and that you may be reaching out to them to assess their potential interest in items in your space. Our group noted how useful cell phones can be for snapping and sending photos of items that a relative might want. Texting photos (or uploading them to a shared, cloud-based file) can facilitate quick answers, avoiding the need to heap a pile of items in a corner until someone can get to your house to have a look.


  • When you are working in an area, considering wearing an apron in which you can stick items that belong somewhere else in your home. Most of the members of our group keep a bin or bag handy for these kinds of items during an organizing session. This keeps clients from interrupting progress to go and put something elsewhere. When de-cluttering, work for a set amount of time in one space, and when are you finished, walk around and put any misfits back where they belong.


  • Invest in a shredder. Anything with personal information or account numbers should not be tossed into the recycle bin. Organizers will suggest you invest a quality shredder; one that won’t jam up when you have more than one page and that will easily chew through staples.


  • Even when you are not intentionally de-cluttering, keep a “throw away” box nearby. This can be a place where you put anything that you decide you don’t want… for any reason (a shirt that no longer flatters, a mug you don’t use, etc.) These items needn’t actually be thrown away, but perhaps will be given away, so you might call yours a “donate box.” Having a convenient place to put things you no longer want allows you to incorporate de-cluttering into daily living.


Part of our conversation included noting some of our favorite quotes from the book. Here are a few of our favorites:

“A loved one wishes to inherit nice things from you, not all things from you.”

You can hear the undertone of this one. Don’t burden your children and family with a house full of stuff.


“Living smaller is a relief.”

Often the message we hear is that having more will make our lives better. Magnusson challenges this idea, tapping into the reality that ownership can be a burden. Releasing things that are not being used or loved is a freeing experience, making the quality of daily life better.


“Mess is an unnecessary source of irritation.”

Our group felt that Magnusson is a naturally organized person. She took on the task of clearing out her belongings on her own, and seems to feel there is no reason why everyone cannot do this. Given this predilection, it is not surprising that she describes an untidy or messy household as unnecessary. Nonetheless, all of us liked this quote because it reminds us that we are not powerless when it comes to the number and state of our possessions. It is possible to regain control, either on our own or with assistance.


“There must be something wrong with the way I have organized my home if I have to continually mess up the place that I originally worked so hard to decorate and keep orderly.”

This one resonated with me. Frequently I see beautifully decorated homes that are struggling under the weight of clutter and disorganization. It is hard to enjoy your décor if it is buried under the detritus of daily living. A well-organized space provides the option of putting everything away if you so desire. Having belongings out for use or pleasure is not a problem, but being unable to put them back is a legitimate issue.


“No thank you. I don’t have room for this.”

This was a suggested response should someone try to gift and item that is neither needed nor wanted. We liked the idea of having a response for this situation, and felt this was a polite way to decline the offer.


As is common with self-help books, not every comment met a warm response. Two ideas stirred a bit of discussion within our group:

1.“If you are invited to lunch, don’t buy the host flowers or a new present – give her one of your things.”

Our group felt that such a gesture has the potential to pressure the host into accommodating an item that he/she might not actually want. The sentiment is kind and loving, but the gesture could result in an awkward situation.

  1. “Unfortunately, I don’t have any advice for this situation.”

As professionals, our group feels it is necessary to have ideas and strategies for all situations, including topics the author avoided such as messy spouses, men and their tools and hoarding tendencies. Magnusson’s book is not written to solve all organizing problems, but rather to share one women’s approach. If your situation differs from hers, remember that there are many options available that can bring relief.


*     *     *     *     *

We ended our discussion with a vote as to whether we would recommend this book should someone ask. Almost everyone voted “yes,” as this was a pleasant read that did indeed motivate us to start thinking about when and how to clear out the accumulations of a lifetime.

Have you read this book? What were your thoughts?

16 thoughts on “Organizers Comment on Death Cleaning”

  1. My mom was always practical minimalist (before minimalism was a thing). She began death cleaning about 15 years before she passes. I’m so thankful for her thoughtfulness. Losing her was difficult enough. I cherish the gift she gave us of less stuff to deal with. The other thing she did was place a handwritten a note in keepsakes with the date she obtained it and the significance of the item. Those notes fill in gaps in my knowledge about items she treasured. Having the note written in her handwriting makes it more meaningful.

    1. I love this idea of a handwritten note in with special objects. What a thoughtful woman your mother was. Simply her handwriting is part of the gift… like an old recipe in a relative’s script. I do believe this kind of clearing out is a gift to the family. It is very difficult to sort sentimental belongings in the midst of grieving. A little planning ahead is a way to show love.

  2. I haven’t read the book, but it’s definitely caught my attention, and reading your post has piqued my interest even more.

    I love the fact that you have an organizing book club!!

    1. It was an easy read, and it does get you thinking about the process. I enjoyed her personality… hope you enjoy it if you pick it up!

  3. I also will put this book on my read list for summer. It sounds like an interesting read. My great-grandmother (who I met as a toddler) left me a couple of pieces of her jewelry when she passed away. She placed a handwritten note inside the little jewelry boxes telling me who gave her the piece and why it was special to her. I have been making notes about certain pieces of furniture and artwork in my homezada file so that my family will know why they are special to me.
    Diane Quintana recently posted…What’s Your Attitude?My Profile

  4. We had such a fun and lively discussion on Friday! Thank you for facilitating our first ever NAPO-CT book club meeting, Seana! Magnusson’s point about starting the downsizing process early is so crucial. And allowing time for final goodbyes of your possessions or giving them a last hurrah or victory lap, as I’ve heard it called, can be so helpful.

    1. I really enjoyed talking about the book with the group. I look forward to doing it again. Knowing we will be discussing it gives me an extra bit of motivation to sit down and read, and I appreciate the expert opinions. Books are always more fun when you can talk with someone about what you are reading:)

  5. I love the idea of doing a book club with other like-minded individuals.

    When organizing with clients in a basement, we add the items to a bin. If the object is smaller, we will line the steps with the things that need to go to the other floor. Then, we will place all these items away right before we end the session. Lining the steps reminds us what needs to be done.

    I read this book. I found that this book inspires individuals to take action by breaking down the different types of items and giving suggestions on what to do with them. It starts to explain what we organizers do on a day in and day out basis. So, I share this book with people who want to downsize and may need a little motivation on where to start.

  6. Whoa, never heard of it but the title got me. At first I thought it was about cleaning after someone has passed. My dad lost both of his parents in the last few weeks.
    I know with my mom’s parents, they began this way before they passed. It was so in-depth. Makes me think this book is really thorough about why we do what we do, and how to untangle it!

    1. My condolences to you and your Dad on the loss of both parents. So much loss in a small span of time. If you are able to begin, as your mom’s parents did, long before it was necessary, it really is a gift to the family. It’s so hard to sort belongings in the midst of grief. I was pleasantly surprised to see that this book was so positive in tone about a subject that could be heavy.

  7. I haven’t read it yet, but it’s been on my radar for a while and it’s on my “Books to Read” list. I love how your book club responded to the various aspects of the book. And the one quote that especially resonated with me was the one about our loved ones wanting to inherit “nice” things, but not “all” things. I recently cleared out my parents’ home. The idea was for family to take the things that were meaningful, but not to force them to take beyond what they wanted, needed or had space for. As the clearer of the house, I had to let go of the fact that not all the things would be taken.
    Linda Samuels recently posted…What is the Best Time Management Question When You Are Overscheduled?My Profile

    1. That quote resonated with me as well. It isn’t about forcing a situation where everything you own ends up in a family member’s house. It is about offering family members the opportunity to own things that have special meaning, and that will foster happy moments of remembering. This will certainly be only a portion of any person’s belongings, but it will be the items that have value and significance to those who choose them. Not forcing people to take things is such a gift… and in the end, who wants to think that an object they passed on has created an unwanted hassle for the recipient, right? You did a wonderful job clearing out your parent’s home. A large, and often thankless, gesture.

  8. Great post, Seana! I will share this with our local NAPO chapter book club! As an organizer, did you feel like you learned organizing ideas that you didn’t have before?

    1. I hope your chapter likes the book, Veronica! I love hearing from anyone pursuing organization and productivity, and I always learn something. Sometimes I come away with a fresh perspective, challenged to think in a new way. I especially love books because I can come away with a quote that states concisely an idea I’ve had, but perhaps not clearly articulated. I guess I’m a believer that there are always more things to learn and new ways to grow!

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