How to Involve Your Loved Ones in the Death Cleaning Process

Death Cleaning might seem like an unsettling term to some, but the concept behind it is both practical and compassionate. Pioneered by Swedish author Margareta Magnusson 1, Death Cleaning is the process of sorting, organising and decluttering your belongings to ensure your loved ones don’t bear the burden of doing it for you when you’re no longer around. Like most acts of caring, it is best done with the involvement of your family and friends.

The concept originated in Sweden and gained global popularity with the KonMari decluttering method. It encourages tidying up and only keeping belongings that “spark joy” before one’s death. The key difference from regular decluttering is the focus on minimizing the burden on loved ones.

This guide provides empathetic advice on how to approach your loved ones about the Death Cleaning process, offering a comforting blend of clinical expertise and heartfelt understanding.

Why Involve Loved Ones?

Death cleaning can be an emotional process that involves making difficult decisions about possessions that hold memories and meaning. While some may want to spare loved ones the burden, involving family in the process can actually make death cleaning more meaningful.

Sharing stories behind special items, photos and heirlooms creates opportunities to connect and reminisce. Loved ones may be able to provide context that helps guide decisions about what should be kept, donated or discarded. They may also wish to keep certain sentimental objects to remember their loved one.

Making these choices together, rather than leaving them all behind, can provide comfort and closure. Death cleaning becomes less about just decluttering a home, and more about preparing a legacy. It becomes quality time spent together appreciating memories that will live on after you’re gone.

With patience and care, death cleaning can strengthen family bonds. While difficult at times, the process is made lighter by sharing it with loved ones.

When to Start

The ideal time to begin death cleaning is between ages 50-70. At this stage in life, people often start divesting themselves of unneeded possessions. Getting a head start prevents a bigger clean out burden on loved ones later.

Begin with small projects first to make the process manageable. Tackle one area of your home at a time, like the kitchen cupboards or bedroom closet. Allow yourself ample time so you don’t feel rushed. Work through the house methodically over months or years.

Consult a professional organizer if you feel overwhelmed. They can help devise a death cleaning strategy and timeline that fits your situation. An outside perspective provides clarity on what to keep, toss or donate. With an expert’s guidance, the process feels less intimidating.

Have Difficult Conversations

Having open and honest conversations with your loved ones early on can help make the death cleaning process easier for everyone down the track. This involves discussing your plans for possessions, asking about any particularly sentimental items they’d like you to save for them, and setting expectations for how the final cleanup will be handled.

It’s understandably not an easy topic to broach. But involving loved ones in these conversations allows them to participate in the process, understand your wishes, share their own views, and start emotionally preparing.

Some things you may want to cover:

  • What possessions people want to receive – this gives you time to put aside meaningful items for each person.

  • Your general plans for distributing or disposing of categories of items – e.g. artworks, jewelry, furniture.

  • Any family heirlooms that hold special significance.

  • Whether certain items should be donated, sold, or recycled – talk through what principles you’ll use to make those decisions.

  • If you’ll need help physically sorting and clearing possessions. Offering this chance to assist can make some people feel more involved.

  • Your preferences for how memorabilia is handled – it may be sentimental to you but not others. Discuss whether items like photos and diaries should be passed on, archived or disposed of.

  • Wishes regarding any pets – who should take them or how should they be cared for.

By having these conversations respectfully and sensitively ahead of time, you can help avoid tensions or surprises down the track. The death cleaning process will be more collaborative and meaningful.

Sort and Organize

A key part of the death cleaning process is categorizing and organizing possessions. Here are some tips for this stage:

  • Categorize items: Decide whether to keep, donate, trash, or sell each possession. This can be difficult but try to make objective decisions based on whether you or your loved ones will actually use or want the item.

  • Digitize photos and documents: Scan or take photos of important photos, documents, certificates, etc. This not only preserves them digitally but also reduces clutter. Store the digital copies on a hard drive, in the cloud or share with your family.

  • Label possessions clearly: As you sort items into boxes or bags, label them clearly e.g. “Keep”, “Donate”, “Trash”, “Sell”, or with the name of the relative who will inherit them. This makes it easier to manage everything.

  • Create an inventory: Having a record of what you are keeping, donating or selling can be useful for you and your loved ones. Include any relevant details.

  • Set up designated zones: Physically separate items into zones – e.g. have boxes/spaces for trash, donate and keep. This makes it easier to visualize what is leaving and staying.

  • Start with difficult categories first: Tackle the most emotionally challenging or time-consuming categories like sentimental items and clutter initially. Leave easier tasks like books and clothing for later.

Sorting and organizing takes time and effort but it is an essential part of death cleaning. Involve your loved ones and make it manageable by breaking it into categories and zones. This will reduce future burden on others.

Downsize Slowly

The process of death cleaning will likely take weeks or even months to complete. It’s important not to rush through it or feel overwhelmed. Take it one area, drawer, or shelf at a time.

Focus on one space, like a bedroom closet or kitchen cabinets, where you can fully sort through and decide what to keep and what to let go of. Allow yourself enough time in each area to carefully consider each item.

Don’t feel pressured to tackle more than you’re comfortable with in a day. Take breaks when needed. This is an emotional process, with memories attached to many belongings. Pace yourself and make self-care a priority throughout.

Death cleaning is meant to be cathartic, not stressful. Allow the process to unfold gradually. Downsizing slowly and steadily will lead to the most fulfilling experience for both you and your loved ones.

Have a System

A systematic approach is crucial for successfully death cleaning with loved ones. This will make the process feel less overwhelming. Here are some tips for having an effective system:

  • Use clear bins and labels – Sort items into bins and storage containers that are clearly labeled by category, such as “Keep”, “Donate”, “Sell”, and “Trash”. Color coding bins can also help quickly identify categories.

  • Create checklists – Make master checklists for each room or storage area to review. This helps you methodically sort and make decisions on items. You can customize detailed checklists for categories like paperwork, clothing, kitchen items, etc.

  • Take a room-by-room approach – Tackle one room or area at a time. Complete the sorting, purging, and organizing process for that space before moving to the next. This prevents feeling scattered. Set a room completion goal each day or week.

Getting organized with a system makes death cleaning more manageable and efficient. It also allows you to spend quality time reminiscing on memories linked to special possessions. With less clutter, you can create space for what truly matters.

Consider Hiring Help

Death cleaning can be emotionally and physically draining. Consider hiring professionals to help lighten the load:

  • Professional organizers – They can organize and sort belongings, create systems, and handle the hands-on work so you can focus on memories. This also avoids family arguments over who does what.

  • Estate sale companies – They handle pricing, marketing and sales for estate sales. You simply point them to what to sell. They can even arrange item removal after the sale.

  • Removal and disposal services – Rather than hauling things yourself, hire junk removal or waste disposal services. Let them handle the heavy lifting and final trash removal.

Getting help allows you to focus on the emotional aspects of death cleaning. Professionals handle logistics and keep the process moving forward efficiently. Plus they provide an objective outside perspective.

Consider your needs and finances, but don’t be afraid to outsource what you can. The process will be easier with support. Contact Martijn van Lith for death cleaning assistance.

Make it Meaningful

Involving loved ones in the death cleaning process is a unique opportunity to share stories and preserve family history. Take time to reminisce about the sentimental items you come across and the memories attached to them. Ask your older relatives to share the backstory behind heirlooms, photo albums, and other memorabilia. Record or write down these family tales to save for future generations.

You can also use this time to create legacy projects together. Scan old photos and documents to create a digital archive. Put together memory books, photo albums or videos highlighting your loved one’s life. Craft handmade gifts using their belongings, such as a quilt from their old clothes. Repurpose and refurbish sentimental furniture or decor to give to family members. Not only will these projects ease the death cleaning process, but they will also help you and your loved ones cherish the memories.

Whether you simply reminisce while sorting, or take on bigger legacy projects, remembering and honoring the stories behind your loved one’s possessions can make the death cleaning process more meaningful. This can provide comfort, closure and a chance to celebrate a life well lived.

Next Steps

After completing the death cleaning process, there are a few next steps to consider:

  • Maintain the decluttered space. It can be tempting to let clutter build up again over time. Make an effort to stay on top of organizing and only keep belongings you truly use or treasure.

  • Update your estate plan. Review your will, trusts, advance directives and any other estate planning documents. Make sure they reflect your current wishes now that you’ve decluttered.

  • Enjoy living with less clutter. Death cleaning is purposely done while alive so you can appreciate the benefits of living in an organized, simplified home. With your affairs in order and surroundings decluttered, you’ll gain peace of mind and be able to focus on what’s most important in life.


Embarking on the Death Cleaning journey with your loved ones is an act of bravery, selflessness and love. Navigating the emotional landscape and practical challenges may be difficult, but it also offers a unique opportunity to deepen your relationships and discover shared meaning in your belongings. By approaching the process with empathy, open communication, and resilience, you can lessen the burden on your loved ones and ensure that the life you’ve lived will be thoughtfully remembered.

If you need assistance with the Death Cleaning process, don’t hesitate to reach out to Martijn van Lith for compassionate and professional support. Let us be your trusted guide through this incredible life journey and help you create a lasting legacy of love.

Magnusson, M. (2018). The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Free Yourself and Your Family from a Lifetime of Clutter. Scribner.

Martijn van Lith offers professionalethical, and confidential extreme decluttering/cleaning services. Why choose us? Because we understand our clients very well, we go beyond just doing the job- we build relationships with our clients, and we treat your possessions with caution and care. We’ve been featured in the news, as well. Our loyal customers can attest to the quality of our services. Check out their testimonials here.