The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning 

The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning featuring Johan, Kat and Ella

The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning – TV series

Produced by Scout (mastermind of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy), this fresh new TV decluttering endeavour features a range of professionals – organiser, psychologist and interior designer. The team tackles a new hero (client) every episode, with a good dose of heart. Because it’s never just about the stuff. The people’s stories are compelling. 

In that way, the series is similar to those who have come before – Tidying Up with Marie Kondo, Space Invaders, The Home Edit and more.

But The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning has a slight shift in name and focus. For starters it is gentle, and there is no dramatic music or prolonged closeups of shameful clutter piles. It’s about humanity rather than humiliation.

Also, it encourages us to declutter our stuff so others don’t have to. Based on the book by Margareta Magnusson (read my 2020 post about that), it includes a healthy dose of Swedish realism. As the show’s psychologist Katarina puts it: “We’re all born, and we’re all going to die. So let’s talk about it.” 

Having said that, almost all the heroes are not near death themselves, and the team emphasises that death cleaning is also about life, and moving to the next stage. And no matter the impetus, the process is similar – decluttering what you don’t need and keeping only what you love. 

The team is a tad cheeky but is not afraid to show heart. In particular fresh-faced Katerina who wells up with emotion regularly, and Ella the badass organiser with a steady stream of statement eyeglasses, who regularly pulls heroes into her bosom. Johan injects a welcome dollop of snarky wit and practicality. The producers break down the alchemy of the team as follows:
Head: Ella
Heart: Kat
Hands: Johan
It’s a winning combination.

A few take-homes from my viewing experience:

  • Ella’s ‘red dot or not’ is a great decluttering idea, particularly if you are working with a team. Stay or go – make your decision and label it. In my case as an organiser, I usually physically move the donations to a pile near the exit point for removal that day, but this is not always practical if the item is large, or another team member will be doing the removals later.
  • Use space as a boundary. In a few of the episodes the team presents the edited storage with an allotted amount of space for the hero to grow into, but they warn against exceeding the storage provided. Let the space be your limit. If it gets out of control, declutter more.
  • The decluttering process is skimmed over a lot. It’s much more laborious than what’s shown on TV. But that’s showbusiness.
  • There are some interesting cultural contrasts between how Sweden and America view their belongings and express themselves. The Swedes are more minimalist and practical about what they own, and they don’t hire external storage for their stuff except in transitional situations. They are more comfortable talking about death, and understanding that to enjoy the light you much acknowledge the dark. Hence the concept of the book and series.
  • The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning team is great at finding the perfect treatment and donation stream for the heroes’ treasures.
  • A wooden horse appears in every refreshed home, as a part of the team’s branding and calling card.

Here is my episode breakdown:

Episode 1. Confessions of a Lounge Singer.

The cleaners help bubbly entertainer Suzi, to manage the memorabilia she has collected throughout a lively past. They remind her there is a lot of living left to do, but of course she knows that. The drag show at the end featuring her costumes, is a winner.

Quotes of the episode: 
Lighthearted: (Suzi, on welcoming the team in) “I’m not quite ready to die yet, I’m still trying to get laid, ok.?”  
Truthbomb: (Suzi): “I am a prisoner of my possessions.”  

Episode 2. Fuck Cancer.

Here The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning hones in on the death part – Shana has terminal cancer. The team helps her make her house comfortable and more importantly, facilitates open discussions with her friends about her illness. 

Quotes of the episode: 
Lighthearted: (Johan, curious about an American turn of phrase) “What is a butt clench?” Hilarity ensues.
Truthbomb: (Shana): “Just do it – donate, donate.”  (go girl!)

Episode 3. The Mother Load.

Lindsey has been a victim of ‘reverse robbery’ (a new term for me), as her mother and extended family have burdened her with their possessions and made her house a dumping ground. It’s tempting to see this practice as abusive (assuaging one’s guilt by thrusting your stuff onto someone you know), but Kat brilliantly points out that Lindsey’s mum just wanted success and stability for her daughter.

Quotes of the episode: 
Lighthearted: (Narrator, talking about creepy paintings in the basement marked for donation) “You have to cover their eyes, so they can’t find their way back home.”  
Truthbomb: (Lindsey, contemplating her stuff): “When someone says to you I love you, I love this thing, it’s really important for you to keep – how do you get rid of it?”  

Episode 4. The Art of a Womon.

No it’s not a typo, the hero Sue is an ageing lesbian artist and was integral in setting up Womontown, a lesbian community during a time when homosexuality was stigmatised. Sue has lots of memorabilia from that time, as well as piles of haphazardly stored art. We learn the Swedish principle of Lagom – not too little, not too much. 

Quotes of the episode: 
Lighthearted: (Kat, noticing a collection of erasers) “That’s an insane amount of rubbers.” (met with puzzlement and hilarity)
Truthbomb: (Narrator): “There’s a fine line between collecting, and putting things in piles.”  

Episode 5. What Lies Beneath.

The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning team descends into Godfrey’s basement to help clean out all his deceased parents’ belongings. Godfrey shows resistance initially, highlighting how difficult it can be to declutter things that hold memories. Luckily a trip to a rubbish dump helps put things in perspective for him, otherwise it would have been a very awkward episode. 

Quotes of the episode: 
Lighthearted: (Johan, in disbelief) “He’s keeping wheat?”  
Truthbomb: (Kat): “Godfrey’s keeping everything. Which makes me think if he gets rid of anything, it’s like getting rid of his parents.”  

Episode 6. The Death Cleaners vs. The Sister Council.

Flora and Jeff are empty-nesters whose eight children have insisted on leaving the family home as a shrine with all their clutter. The parents need to stand firm on their boundaries as they enter their next stage of a clutter-free life.

Quotes of the episode: 
Lighthearted: (Narrator, introducing the family) “Eight kids versus three death cleaners. Wow, this should be a fun death-cleaning.”
Truthbomb: (Flora): “Time is short, time is precious, and storing things isn’t.”  

Episode 7. The Würst of Times.

Doug’s fiancee won’t move in until his man cave of wieners and Tiki curios is under control and there is space for her. Especially in the kitchen, where you can’t move for expired cooking spices. A touching river ceremony gives Doug closure from the trauma imposed by his ex-wife. 

Quotes of the episode: 
Lighthearted: (Johan, noticing Doug’s sausage memorabilia) “Curating wieners is the daily job of a gay man’s life.”  
Truthbomb: (Kat): “My eyes couldn’t rest anywhere.”  

Episode 8. Landan’s Final Gift.

Another The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning episode that directly confronts death, as Tiffany lost her husband four months ago and his legacy was a lot of football memorabilia. And the chair that he died in – the removal of which makes for a confronting but uplifting scene.

Quotes of the episode: 
Lighthearted: (Johan, celebrating the process) “It’s champagne o’clock.”  
Truthbomb: (Kat): “We don’t need to hang onto everything, just because someone has died.”  

Looking forward to more episodes of The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning in the future! At the time of writing, a season 2 is yet to be announced.

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