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.
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
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Hazel, once again you have hit the nail on the head. Sharing your article with friends and family. Thank you
Thank you, Heather!
The idea of ‘death cleaning’ intrigued me when I heard about her book. I remember my grandmother and mother-in-law actively working on this towards the last 5+ years of their lives. And when it came time to do the clearout post-death, I knew it was a gift they gave us. They made decisions about their things so their loved ones didn’t have to.
I’d love to see the new show and even more after reading your wonderful review. I don’t have Peacock, but I probably could subscribe and then unsubscribe. I don’t need another streaming service. But I also would love to see this series.
So you know how it feels to be the recipient of someone else’s ‘death cleaning’! I had Peacock for free through my cable company (from which I currently only purchase internet service.) But it’s cheap enough to get for a month….that is, if you note the date by which you need to un-subscribe in order to not be charged again. (I am finding that some services allow you to unsubscribe right away, so you don’t forget, and still enjoy the service for the paid-for time.
Though I have not watched the Death Cleaning show, I am familiar with the concept and have also touched on it in a few of my posts. Thanks for digging deeper and of course I love the section on “What organizers dislike (in general) about organizing shows.
I find myself explaining to folks quite frequently that though I really enjoyed the Marie Kondo show, I feel that were not transparent about how many “person hours” went into the decluttering.
I don’t know any organizing shows that are transparent on that point. Thanks for reading and commenting on my blog post!
I felt leery about watching organizing shows because of the emotional outcome. Thank you for sharing your thoughts about the show. I’m going to check it out.
I have read the book. It was an easy read, and I enjoyed it a great deal. Reading it motivated me to clear the rest of the clutter from my parents that were left in my home. Some things I wanted to keep but didn’t feel I could use, so I went on a journey to repurpose and upcycle things to make them mine.
If you enjoyed the book, and my blog post, chances are you’ll enjoy the show! Thanks for sharing your experience with your parents’ stuff.
I have the read book (we read it as a group with NAPO-CT), and I liked it a lot. I felt it was quite relatable, and put a name to a process which many people face at one time or another.
I haven’t seen the show, as I generally don’t watch organizing shows. At the end of the day when I sit down to relax, I prefer to think about “non-work” related topics. But you give a hearty endorsement here, so maybe I will check it out.
In general, I tend to think any show, podcast, talk, webinar, book, etc. that talks about organizing is good for our profession. It provides a jumping off point for conversation and discussion, which I think is healthy.
Ha — I know what you mean, about watching work-related shows! I guess that’s also why I don’t watch them all, or more than a couple of episodes. I agree with you that all mainstream media is good for the profession and provides good material for discussion.
I have know about this for years and my mother did this many years ago before I had ever heard the term. Believe me, it is wonderful when clutter has been cleared and decisions made years before the death.
I watched the first episode at your suggestion and want to watch more when I can find some “free” time.
I found the one episode hilarious but did wonder if they could have done it with “cleaner” language.
Thanks for bringing it to my attention.
“Hilarious” (and an inspiring decluttering and growth process), in this case, compensates for unprofessional language, I think. But I do wonder how many viewers they are sacrificing with their choices right out of the gate.
I haven’t finished watching the series, but I did read Magnusson’s book (twice) as well as her follow-up memoir. You and I have both blogged about the show, but I think yours gives a much fuller sense of the series, of the book upon which it is based, and on the strengths and weaknesses of the show.
And I completely agree with Kathy about Marie vs. Margareta, and will side with the latter, all the live-long day!
As someone who once worked in television, I know that TV is about the image, not the reality (and I think it should be called Unreality TV), and watch with tongue firmly in cheek, but do worry about how much the typical viewer understands about that. Your explanation is great!
Thanks, Julie! I should probably ask you more questions about TV, since you know I’m a big fan. (Even if I don’t always recognize people from other shows, I sometimes do recognize them when others don’t!)
I read the book but your post made me want to reread it since I forgot most of every book I read once. Sometimes I need to look back at my goodreads account to even remember if I have read the book at all!
Thanks for the in-depth review. I don’t have peacock but it’s not a bad idea to subscribe for one month, watch it and then unsubscribe when the month is up. I have Roku and they usually make it very easy to add a channel temporarily and then usubscribe.
I am not surprised that it’s a likeable show if it has Amy Poehler. It will be a pleasant surprise to see an organizing show that goes a little deeper and really showcases something meaningful. I will say that I do love Matt Paxton’s Legacy List on PBS which can also be viewed online off of the show’s website.
I, too, sometimes have to refer to my Goodreads account to verify whether I’ve read something! And I, too love Matt Paxton’s Legacy List. Because: 1) who doesn’t love Matt Paxton? 2) I’m all about leaving a legacy and telling the stories of our special possessions. 3) His book is often shown on Amazon along with mine. 🙂
I read and loved the book, and recommend it often to clients and friends (and family!).
I was able to watch the first show (only) without subscribing. Honestly can’t remember for sure at this point, but it might have come up in my Amazon Prime account.
I did not care for the show, but I suspect that has more to do with me not being a TV viewer than anything else. I think people who enjoy those other “reality” shows would probably enjoy this.
And, I share your objection to them not telling us what they did with the collection. Why spend so much time focusing on it and then not share what became of it? They played up the shock value, then omitted the presumed payoff for the client.
Thanks for the great post!
I mean, right? It’s not like they mentioned the collection once and then never again. They really highlighted it! And left us hanging. So to speak.
Thank you for this great review of the show, Hazel. I haven’t watched it yet but it is on my list of shows to tune into.
I have read the book and encourage my clients to read it also. It helps to think about the reasons for engaging in this practice.
It also helps if the person has had to clean out a loved one’s home who has not taken the time or made the effort to declutter.