A Gentle Reminder about a Hard Thing: Margareta Magnusson’s The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning

Self-help is not a genre I am interested in 99% of the time, but I liked the cover of The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning, a gentle blue with gold accents, and I liked the title, something that could be attached to a Don DeLillo novel, and that was enough to get me to pick it off a library shelf. I read it in a couple of bus journeys and spent the whole time enraptured by the voice, loving the feeling that I was absorbing wisdom, like I was making a conscious effort to listen to the stories of someone I know won’t be around forever.

The voice is of paramount importance, because really, none of what is in this book is wisdom. As snarky as you might feel about the commonness of common sense, a lot of people will be familiar with the main ideas in this book.

  • You are better equipped to deal with your belongings than anyone else
  • You probably don’t need all the things you have
  • Space is a resource like any other and must be managed
  • Your environment is a reflection of yourself
  • Focus on one thing at a time
  • It’s never too early to start planning for the inevitable
  • Death is inevitable

See that last one. Not very cheery, is it? But said the right way, and this book is a masterclass in saying things the right way, this feels more like being gently reminded of important things than it does being hit over the head with moral maxims. Death is inevitable but it can be prepared for; here are some reminders of what you might want to get done before you die. Margareta Magnusson’s conversational mixture of anecdotes, advice, speculations, jokes, and recipes, goes a long way to making the impact of her reminders about the inevitability of death and the mess often left behind a gentle one.

I am twenty eight and hopefully a lot of Magnusson’s advice won’t apply to me for a while. That said, she includes some great hints on broaching the subject with other people (grandparents whose estate you will have to help deal with, for example), which I think makes this book one that is well worth reading at any stage of life. For someone my age, it is a perspective on a life well lived, and a window into what some of my older relatives and friends might be contemplating. It will better equip me to deal with some of the awkward situations that death presents.

Read this as motivation to help you get up and get sorting your own life out, no matter your age. (Magnusson tells us it is never too early to start death cleaning.) Read it for consolation regarding your own coming death. Read it to hear the soft, happy voice of a grandparent. But whatever you do, read it. I needed this antidote to nihilism.

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