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CULTURE

Sweden’s ‘gentle art’ of house cleaning before death

In her elegant apartment in the centre of Stockholm, 84-year-old Lena Sundgren looks at her crowded bookshelf, lit by the glow of a candle.

A half-lit bookshelf with books and a vase of flowers next to a wall clock
Swedish death-cleaning is meant to relieve families of the burden of sorting through possessions after the death of a loved one. Photo by Lesly Juarez on Unsplash

Sighing deeply, she lifts up a pile of gardening books and moves them to one side. “The feeling of getting rid of them is a relief,” she admits. “This death-cleaning, which I do a few times a week, makes me calm.”

Death-cleaning, or döstädning in Swedish ( means “death” and städning means “cleaning”), is the name given to the practice of sorting through your personal belongings before your death.

The concept has gained something of a cult following around the world since it was coined by author Margareta Magnusson in her 2017 bestseller “The Gentle Art of Swedish Death-Cleaning: How to Free Yourself and Your Family from a Lifetime of Clutter”.

“I think you should take care of your stuff so that no one else has to do all the work for you with all the crap that you have left behind,” the author tells AFP.

READ ALSO: ‘Swedish death-cleaning is something we should all think about – and enjoy’

Sorting through a lifetime of possessions “takes you back to moments you want to remember maybe, and if you don’t, just throw it away”, she says.

Death cleaning differs from the decluttering approach to a tidy home associated with Marie Kondo, a Japanese celebrity who gained global fame promoting the idea that people should keep only those items that bring them joy.

Swedish death-cleaning is meant to relieve families of the burden of sorting through possessions after the death of a loved one.

‘You can’t live forever!’
Magnusson’s daughter Jane appreciates her mother’s efforts.

“I think most people who have really old parents and a busy life would like to go through less of their parents’ things when they are gone,” she says.

“I am grateful for the huge amount of work she has done… and happy that it’s catching on around the world.”

Magnusson’s book has made the New York Times bestseller list, has been translated into dozens of languages.

An American blogger who posted a video about her experience with death-cleaning has racked up three million views online.

While Magnusson coined the term, Swedes have been death cleaning for ages.

“Forty years ago a very old neighbour of mine told me that she was going to do death cleaning,” recalls Kristina Adolphson, an 84-year-old former actress who is now also doing it.

“When you death-clean… you have to realise that you can’t live forever!”

Swedes’ pragmatic approach to dying helps explain the phenomenon, says Magnusson, suggesting that other cultures prefer to avoid the subject.

“They are afraid of death, and so are Swedes. But we talk about it.”

Only a few essential items of clothing hang in her closet, but a few figurines of animals and trolls still dot her living room.

“I have death-cleaned my apartment many times but I still have quite a few things. So it never ends.”

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EASTER

The must-have dishes for a Swedish Easter celebration

If you've spent Christmas or Midsummer in Sweden before, you'll probably recognise lots of the dishes at a Swedish Easter celebration. Here's our guide, as well as some vegetarian alternatives.

The must-have dishes for a Swedish Easter celebration

A traditional Swedish Easter menu is very similar to a Christmas julbord, although slightly lighter, with a focus on eggs and fish rather than the winter season’s cabbage and kale dishes. Here’s our rundown of what you should expect, as well as how you can make it yourself.

Herring

The most important part of the Easter table for many Swedes is the pickled herring (sill). In many families, one particular member of the family will be tasked with preparing the herring for the Easter meal weeks in advance.

If you’re based in Sweden, you can buy herring in the supermarket, although most will say that homemade pickled herring is superior. Vegetarian or vegan pickled herring substitutes such as svill (made from mushrooms) and tofusill (made from tofu) are also commercially available.

If you are planning on making your own pickled herring for Easter, you have a few options. Either you can buy ready-salted herring fillets in the supermarket which can be pickled straight away, or you will have to buy fresh herring fillets which you salt yourself – the latter option can take up to two weeks so requires a bit of advance planning.

You can also make your own vegetarian options: try pickling aubergine, courgette or tofu. Most recipes will take at least two days, with the herring or alternative of choice needing to marinate overnight before serving, so get planning now if you want to have it on the table for Saturday.

Here are a selection of pickled herring recipes from John Duxbury’s Swedish Food website.

Salmon

Most Easter tables will feature at least two sorts of salmon, one is often a baked side of salmon. You’ll often see smoked salmon and gravad lax (literally “buried”, preserved in salt, sugar and often dill) alongside hovmästarsås, a mustard and dill sauce which is also served at Christmas.

If you don’t eat fish, you can make a vegetarian or vegan version of gravad lax from carrots. This is usually referred to as gravad morot. Here’s a recipe (in Swedish) from the book Vegansk husmanskost by Gustav Johansson. Again, it needs to be marinated overnight, so make sure to plan this in advance.

Scrambled egg with cod roe, truffle and dill served in eggshells. Photo: Jessica Gow/TT

Eggs

No Easter meal would be complete without eggs. The most usual form of eggs you’ll see is cold, hardboiled eggs sliced in half. Some people will also top these half-eggs with mayonnaise, prawns and cod roe, known as kaviar in Swedish. This is sold in small glass jars in the fridge section of the supermarket, and can be orange or black – not the same as Kalles kaviar!

To make these vegetarian, you can leave out the prawns and use a vegetarian version of kaviar made from seaweed. Look for tångkaviar, which may be in the fish section of the supermarket, or the vegetarian section, if your supermarket has one of these.

If you live outside Sweden, you may be able to source tångkaviar in the food market at your local Ikea.

For a vegan option, try sliced tofu topped with vegan mayonnaise (spiked with black salt, if you can get hold of it, which will give it an eggy flavour). Top with tångkaviar and a sprig of dill and you’re good to go.

Matjes-style herring served with crispbread, boiled new potatoes with dill, cheese and diced onions. Photo: Janerik Henriksson/TT

Boiled potatoes with dill

This is pretty self-explanatory. Boiled new potatoes with their skins on, served cold with dill.

Jansson’s temptation

Although more of a Christmas dish, some families also serve Jansson’s temptation, a creamy potato casserole baked in the oven, at Easter.

Jansson’s is made using Swedish ansjovis, known as sprats in English. Although it may be tempting, you should avoid substituting ansjovis with anchovies – the former are much milder and spiced, whereas the latter will be far too salty.

One option, which also has the benefit of being vegetarian, could be to use similar spices to create the same flavour you would gain from the ansjovis. Try simmering the cream used in your Jansson’s for a couple of minutes with a pinch of ground allspice, a pinch of ground cloves, a pinch of ground ginger, a pinch of white pepper and a few bay leaves instead.

Check out this Jansson’s temptation recipe from our archives.

Goat’s cheese filled lamb fillets with beans and tenderstem broccoli. Photo: Leif R Jansson/TT

Lamb

Roast lamb is also becoming more and more popular at Easter, usually as a roast joint of lamb or a rack of lamb.

This can be difficult to make a convincing vegetarian version of, but vegetarian meatballs or sausages could be a good substitute at your Easter buffet.

Easter egg

If there’s one thing you definitely shouldn’t forget at Easter, it’s the Easter eggs. Swedish Easter eggs are less chocolatey than in other countries. The eggs themselves are not edible – they are made of cardboard with Easter-themed designs – and are filled with sweets. 

These are easy to make vegetarian or vegan, just double-check that any sweets you include don’t contain animal-derived gelatin, and leave out the milk chocolate for any vegans.

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