Swedish Death Cleaning: It’s Actually a Good Thing – 52 Ancestors #344

I know. I know. That name sounds awful and morbid. But trust me on this one – it’s really not. At least, it’s not as bad as it sounds.

Additionally, this topic is timely right now, because the holidays are coming soon.

In a nutshell, Swedish Death Cleaning is a gift to whoever would otherwise have to undertake that task after you’ve departed to visit with the ancestors.

My mother did this for me, although I WAS NOT NEARLY APPRECIATIVE ENOUGH at the time. She had an estate sale after my step-father died, sold most of the contents of the farmhouse, and moved to an apartment in town.

Of course, she took with her the things she truly loved – which is the entire point. Paring down to what’s really important and not holding on to things “just because.”

It’s a departure from my old habits and a new way of thinking about your things.

Unless you’ve recently deep-cleaned, or moved, I guarantee if you open any closet or cupboard door in your house that you’ll find all kinds of stuff in the back or on the shelves or even on hangers that you don’t need, don’t actually want and may not even remember that you have.


I need to apologize to my Mom right here and now for not helping her with this task. She had my step-brother and his wife and family next door, and my other brother and family an hour away. I thought everything was covered.

I was a 6-hour drive one way. Had she asked me to come and help, I would have gladly done so. In retrospect, I should simply have volunteered or showed up to assist.

Now that I’m doing this myself, I realize that even just keeping her company as she went through every box in that house would have been oh-so-welcome companionship. And now I think of the questions I would have liked to ask, and the conversations we might have had. The stories she would have told me.

Now, she’s gone and I can never hear her voice again.

But…I didn’t know or realize at the time.

When the time came to pack up Mom’s things – it was difficult enough. I can’t imagine having to deal with that entire farmhouse full.

The Process?

Of course, cleaning of this type can be difficult simply because there are so many decisions to make.

And it can be difficult because of unexpected emotions.

In my case, I’ve kind of been living my life backward as I sort through boxes. I have found so many unexpected bittersweet things.

My mother’s flatware. This made me smile. Now it’s integrated it into my own silverware drawer. I smile every day when I see these and think of her and the meals we shared at home.

A gift I made for my Mom when I was about 10 or so. I used her sewing machine, the little black Singer Featherweight that I still have. My Dad bought the machine for her before his death. I even hand-sewed the seam together on the bear’s shoulder. This was on her bed every day of her life.

I didn’t realize this bear was stored where it was, so it was a bit of a surprise when I discovered it. So bittersweet. Mom’s gone of course. What the heck do I do with this? I’m not about to pitch it. There’s no one to give it to.

Ok, in this case, it’s going on the guest room bed for now. Someday, someone else will just have to deal with it.

Anyone know what these things are? My head hurts just thinking about them.

When my Mom passed away, I brought her bedroom set home. I couldn’t go through everything at the time, but I have now. That’s where I found these gems.

Somewhere there’s a picture of Mom with pink rollers in her hair, using these roller pick or pin things. She would haunt me forever if I published that – so maybe it’s better than I have not yet reached that cleaning depth yet.

Dad’s flag from his coffin. This brought me up short. It also reminded me that I need to find the flag box I purchased and put it together so it can be displayed properly.

The first quilt pattern book I ever purchased. I bought the fabric to make a similar quilt for charity – then purchased my own quilt at the auction because my child loved it. Of course, then I needed to make the other child a quilt too – and one for our bed as well. I found that quilt too in this process.

Before this book, my quilts were all “scrap” with one of the church women providing a pattern. Or all of the patches were squares of the same size, traced using a cardboard template.

I’m gifting this book to someone. Maybe they will learn to love to quilt too. Trust me, I know this pattern by heart now.

I’ve found boxes and boxes of pictures too.

My daughter and I are waving goodbye to my parents when they first came up to visit after we bought that house. This made me sad, because in its companion photo, we were all standing together and hugging and now my daughter and I are the only two left.

Dad, being a farmer, had to plan carefully to be gone for more than a few hours. This was only the second time he had ever left the state of Indiana.

Dad and his three-legged rescue cat – Frosty – both napping. This was an after-lunch routine and they were inseparable. The photo hanging over the bed hangs in my house today, and the bed, purchased for my Mom by her parents for her 16th birthday is in my guest room.

My bracelet from the hospital when I was born. I don’t think I had ever seen this bracelet before either. I also found my footprints inked by the hospital when I was born.

I made this doll quilt for my daughter when she was maybe 6 or 7.

No one in the family wants this doll, cradle or the little quilt. With my daughter’s permission, I gifted it to a little girl who loves it!

And the pets. We miss our furry family members so much.

But yee-gads – look at that awful wallpaper.

My daughter and I had a good laugh over that.

And then, there was this.

The last birthday card my mother sent me.

Yea, that one was really tough.

The Up Side

  • First, I’ve found photos I either didn’t know I had or had forgotten about. In some cases that was because I had not gone through my mother’s things completely.
  • Second, I found wonderfully uplifting letters from so many people. For example, my great-aunt sent me an encouraging card that said, “I’m so very proud of you. You said you would do it, and you did! Congratulations.” (Hint – if you’re going to save something, write the date on it.)
  • Third, I found information that I didn’t realize was important the first time I reviewed it. For example, I discounted a photo of a couple several years ago because they were not my direct ancestors. I’ve since discovered that one of the people in the photo was my ancestor’s sibling – and I don’t have a photo of the ancestor. That sibling is probably as close as I’ll ever get. I took the opportunity to scan the photo, upload it to the couple in my genealogy trees, and share with others.
  • Fourth, I’ve found so much that I can now gift to someone else. I’m not specifically talking about heirlooms here, but information for my genealogy cousins and buddies. I’ve sent so many boxes off. In some cases, I’m returning something to the proper people. I’ve returned letters with signatures that people sent me 20 or 30 years ago – and their grandchildren or great-grandchildren now get to enjoy the letters along with their signature. I’ve donated to historical societies. I’ve sent research documents that I no longer need to other people researching the family or area. I should get a discount at both the post office and UPS.😊
  • Fifth, I’ve decided to gift many things now instead of waiting until later. That way, I can enjoy seeing the person or people using or wearing or just enjoying the gift. If I’m not actually using it, and they can begin enjoying it now – that’s a win for everyone.
  • Sixth, I’m going to do my family members one more favor – and this is a big one. I’m going to scan and organize the photos. I already purged a great many. Before you cringe, let me explain that really, no one needs 10 shots of the same thing or pictures with people whose heads are not in the photo. (That was my mother’s specialty.) Or pictures of places we can no longer identify.

So yes, I threw lots of pictures away. I had also printed second copies of many rolls of film for my Mom, then I inherited her set, so I didn’t need both.

I’ve started the digitizing process, albeit slowly. I’ll be doing this as I can over the next several months.

Swedish Death Cleaning is Satisfying and Freeing

Truthfully, I hate cleaning. It feels like such a waste of time because it never stays done. Not only that, but I’d much rather be doing something else, like genealogy, or quilting, or writing blog articles. Pretty much anything BUT cleaning.

However, this has been different.

Yes, I’ve had quite a few good cries. But for every one of those, I’ve SAVED my daughter from one.

For every difficult thing I find and have to deal with, I’ve saved her from the same.

I’ve also found some wonderful memories.

I’m enjoying the process of gifting. And I know the people involved – like my Mom for instance – would be pleased to see her things used and loved anew.

I’m sharing love with so many people in various ways. Kind of like Johnny Appleseed, but different.

I feel so much freer with fewer things – and it makes cleaning easier too.

I’m hopeful that maybe, just maybe, one of the people who’ve received research documents will be able to make a big breakthrough that I missed.

That would be the ultimate gift.

The holidays are coming.

Is there something in your possession that someone in your life would like to start loving now?

Consider Swedish Death Cleaning and spread the love!


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25 thoughts on “Swedish Death Cleaning: It’s Actually a Good Thing – 52 Ancestors #344

  1. This was written so nicely and reminds me I should go through my items and gift out or at least donate them so someone who is looking for ‘just that one thing’ can find it.

    I am not found of moving, but when I next have to, I hope I can be as helpful by sharing like you do. May your new home be just right!

  2. My sisters and I went through a similar house cleaning when my mom passed away several years ago. It was a lot of work yet brought back many memories.

    We had many unlabeled photos of unnamed relatives from long ago. One photo of my great grandfather with an unidentified cousin intrigued me. The photo was labeled as Miedzyzrecu Smolenski. I wonder if the two took a train trip to Smolensk (half way to Moscow) or perhaps he traveled alone and visited her there. It was a very nice photo. My great grandfather settled in England for about a year before emigrating to the US. Two years later, he brought his wife and children over.

  3. What a coincidence on your topic, Roberta!!
    I just finished several weeks of cleaning out an apt of an old friend (her relatives were out of town). After the family took what they wanted, I distributed other items that she had mentioned she wanted to go to special people, whom the relatives didn’t know. I was also able to recycle much of her linens, beddings, clothes, kitchenware, furniture, etc to the residents’ social welfare committee in her apt building. They should have a neat holiday with lots of little special gifts from her surpluses.
    Now just to send out the obituary notices to her distant relatives & club friends (from her Christmas card list) & thank you notes for her medical team of specialists.
    I will carry on with her genealogy, since she wished it, despite not knowing computers, as a fellow ethnic.
    RIP Peggy!!

  4. Thank you for sharing this. It is so important for us to consider what we will one day leave behind. I’ve simplified and cleared out many things but your article reminded me of what I haven’t done. The last sweater my Mom knitted for herself needs a note identifying it. And I know there will be more when I look again. I want you to know your writing makes a difference.

  5. Hi Roberta,
    I loved this blog post! My daughter and I frequently purge things together.
    We take turns going through my things one time and her things the next time. We like to tease each other when one of us wants to hold on to some ridiculous item- we call each other “Horder!” That usually does the trick. I’m 66 years old and I tell her that when I pass away she can get rid of whatever she wants except genealogy materials. If she doesn’t want that she has to give it to her cousins. I consider the old photos to belong to “the (extended) family” and not to me personally.
    The stuff that is no longer wanted by family members goes to the church rummage sale or gets put out with a “free” sign on it. I feel much better about getting rid of something if I know it has found a new home with someone who can use it.
    Thanks for sharing all your AMAZING research; it’s an inspiration to us all!

  6. Those are hair curler pins! My Grandmother & Mom had a ton of them! And yes, they definitely could hurt, especially if the curler was a bit too tight.

  7. Home remodeling can be almost as effective as a move IF you make a point of not just putting everything back. Kitchen remodel? Everything washed, and placed in its new “home” with thought to where/how it would be used. Rejects offered to the kids, then gifted elsewhere, if needed. New carpet meant I painted all the bedroom closets. Same thing–nothing went back unless it was a “keeper”. Also lost a large built-in bookcase. Almost all the leftover school supplies were gifted to a local school. Items I wasn’t sure about? I left them out and in sight so I would eventually be annoyed enough to make a decision. Downsizing the house will require a harder cut, but a lot of the clutter has been dealt with. Knowing the things we don’t need any more are being useful elsewhere is a wonderful feeling!

  8. A few years ago when Swedish Death Cleaning became a “thing” I thought, who would do that! It’s not costing me anything to keep it and I might need it someday. This all stems from my last move 20 years ago when I threw away a huge dumpster full and gave away about that much more. Then, as time passed and my lifestyle changed I bought many of those same things again.

    I will be getting new floors “soon” but I’ve had 90% of everything in 2 rooms packed away or stored in the garage since August. I made 4 trips to the charity shop and I think I could make one more. That’s 4 pickup loads. I set some of the bigger things by the road and they disappeared. I’m seriously thinking a lot of the stored stuff won’t come back in the house. The kicker is, I like not having so much stuff everywhere. It will be easier to clean without an obstacle course. I’m 75. Will I really want it “someday”? Maybe. But there are second hand stores nearby.

  9. I recently read “The gentle art of Swedish death cleaning” by Margareta Magnusson. The author describes the “decision overload” that can result. It is quite a loving gift to save your descendants from that by doing the cleaning now.

  10. Thanks, Roberta, for sharing, as only YOU can do! You are reinforcing things I’ve done over the years, but more so since reaching my 70s. It is WORK, important and freeing, but not easy. One thing prompting me is my older nephew wanting to use my years of travel photographs for puzzles (virtual, an offshoot of these Covid months/years). And, without children, I’ve taken time to “gift” personal items to dear friends. It’s a start.

    I look forward to reading the next “chapters of your life” — THANK YOU!


  11. Thanks so much for the nudge, I have way too much stuff that needs to go the local charity bazaars.

    I also have two much loved items – a cherry wood, drop leaf table and a mantle clock with wooden gears, both from the 1830s – that are only worth a lot to me. My mother was an only child and she was the only off-spring of my grandmother’s 5 sisters, so no cousins. My great grandparents brought them to Iowa from upstate New York in the 1860s. I don’t even know which of the old Rhode Island families they came from: the Wilbur/Hamlins or the Hopkins/Cloughs. One or both of the families gave the kids some old stuff to take with them when they migrated to Iowa. I guess they’ll just be sold as antiques someday.

  12. I have tried to start the clearing for past year but something is always popping up. I started it for a few hours this week. I am
    slow going because of the wonderful papers and info I’d forgotten about. 🥰 My son would lose both parents if my husband had to go through all my 40
    plus years of research plus the items I’ve gathered along the way. He’d have heart failure. And I don’t want my son to
    deal with all my mess.

    I had to do my moms.

  13. Swedish Death..yeah it’s nerve racking and crying time. Just did it earlier this year. Cried as I sent my brothers children his baby shoes, military uniform and photos. Felt like burying him again.
    Deciding which grand or great got what. Some stuff I can’t decide yet and it’s ok.
    12 boxes of genealogy books and records of families I now know aren’t mine to local history center.
    It is liberating and peaceful and I don’t have this pressing need to worry “what happens when I’m gone”.
    Good luck Bobbi and hopefully you’ll get the same peace.

  14. I am currently working on clearing out my late sister’s possessions for her daughter who lives in another state and is unable to travel. My sister used to live with me before she needed a higher level of nursing care than I could provide. Her apartment has been clearer. Meanwhile, I am working on clearing out two 10 feet by 25 feet storage lockers. This work is taking months to finish. Her daughter has told me what she wants. For many questionable things, I take photos and consult her. What she does not want, I am donating. If her daughter does not want them, there are certain items I treasure and will keep. Photos and genealogy items have been found in unexpected places and scattered boxes. My tears have been frequent as I go through her things. My sister and I were very close our entire lives together, lived and worked together at times when we were older adults, traveled together in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. She was the one I could turn to for advice on many topics. In late Spring, I plan to take a minivan load of treasured and desired items to her daughter who lives half way across the country. All this clearing out, also inspires me to not leave so much for my adult children to have to clear out.

  15. Oh how you struck a nerve! My mother was fond of getting 2-3 copies of her rolls of film. Unfortunately she was not a good photographer! She gave away a few out of every roll and kept the rest. We combined households for the last 8 years of her life so I too ended up with all of those copies of photos. I gave myself permission to toss those that were not recognizable, people I did not know or care about and generally bad. The rest I evaluated for quality to give to the rest of the family. I also have sorted out some personal items of hers and am trying to decide which of the grand/great grand’s should receive them. I will ship them off to them in the near future.
    More problematic are the rather large packet of old photos she had marked for her cousin to have. She has since died and I will need to research her family to locate an heir to pass them on to! I will scan them however. I may create a page for the cousin on Ancestry and load the photos and include my contact info for the originals.

  16. Pingback: Almost Dying Changes You – 52 Ancestors #348 | DNAeXplained – Genetic Genealogy

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