Swedish Death Cleaning

with Heather Nickerson,

Co-Founder and CEO, Artifcts

This week on the Art of Aging, host Michael Hughes chats with Heather Nickerson, Co-Founder and CEO of Artifcts. During the episode, Mike and Heather discuss the concept of Swedish death cleaning including defining the term, curbing misconceptions, exploring the emotional connection individuals have with certain possessions, how Swedish Death cleaning helps tell the story of possessions, and more.
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Highlights from this week’s conversation include:

  • What is Swedish death cleaning (1:18)
  • How our relationships with possessions change over time (3:36)
  • What is Artifcts? (4:53)
  • The emotional connection of certain possessions (6:29)
  • Special connections with items at certain age stages (9:31)
  • How Swedish death cleaning helps tell the story behind possessions (12:21)
  • Getting started with Swedish death cleaning (16:33)
  • Thinking about possessions as collections rather than individual items (19:11)
  • Connecting with Artifcts (21:25)
  • Abundant Aging questions for Heather (23:05)


Abundant Aging is a podcast series presented by United Church Homes. These shows offer ideas, information, and inspiration on how to improve our lives as we grow older. To learn more and to subscribe to the show, visit abundantagingpodcast.com


Michael Hughes 00:07
Hello, and welcome to The Art of Aging, which is part of the Abundant Aging Podcast Series from United Church Homes. On this show, we look at what it means to age in America and in other places around the world with positive and empowering conversations that challenge, encourage and inspire all to age with abundance. And as part of our aging and innovation series, I am very pleased that we have Heather Nickerson, Co-Founder and CEO of Artifcts for the interview today. And Artifcts is all about cherishing our favorite things while helping them move on as we move on in life. And today we’re going to talk about Swedish death cleaning, which is a really cheerful term but that’s the subject and we’ll talk about it. So Heather, welcome to the show.

Heather Nickerson 00:51
Thank you so much, Mike, I’m thrilled to join you this afternoon looking forward to talking about Swedish death cleaning, which is definitely a mouthful. But I want to assure all of our listeners, it is not as dreary as it sounds, it’s actually a lot of fun.

Michael Hughes 01:05
Yeah, you realize the word gap is in the name right?

Heather Nickerson 01:10
Or we do the suites now call it das stepping or literally the art of death cleaning. And it’s a Swedish practice.

Michael Hughes 01:18
Just get any better. You know, you know that others don’t mind. Sorry for interrupting.

Heather Nickerson 01:22
It’s even more of a tongue twister. Yeah. So talking about the artist, I did like it full disclosure, I lived in Denmark for a year in college. So all those crazy Scandinavian words. I love them. I recognize that everyone does but dust deadening. It is the sweetest term that means essentially putting your affairs in order as you age. It lets families go through their stuff. And their loved ones do it together. Because when you think about it, you get to end your life. Typically you have hundreds if not 1000s of items, and who wants the burden to be on the next generation. So the Swedes being very clever that they are they develop this practice where you work with your loved ones over time to go through all their things from the family heirlooms to the really just simple mundane objects. And you have a conversation. What do you want to happen with this item at the end? The term itself became very popular in 2018. There is a Swedish author called Margareta Magnusson. And she wrote a book that was eventually translated into English, called the gentle art of Swedish death cleaning. And I do want to share one specific quote from magazines. I think that just sums up the entire What is this? And why do we do this? So well, Magnusson states in one of the opening chapters, that whether it’s sorting the family heirlooms from just junk, downsizing to a smaller place, or setting up a system to help you stop misplacing your keys, death, cleaning gives us the chance to make the later years of our lives as comfortable and stress free as possible. And I think those are really the two key terms you want to think about today in our conversation, as comfortable and as stress free as possible. And that’s where I think the joy comes into this. You can experience that with your loved ones, pass on the stories and the stuff and not be burdened by it. There is

Michael Hughes 03:15
so much there. I got it, I gotta say. So I mean, you know, my mind went to the Marie Kondo aesthetic, you know, that was sort of popular a couple of years ago, a very minimalist, you know, do you have a does this object give you joy, things like that, and, and as a collector of anything, Scandinavia, and Danish in this house, believe me at all, it gives me joy. So I just think it’s tough for me to do that editing, at least with Marie condos, lens. But I like the part about, you know, making it easier to find your keys. It’s all about it’s not just about memorialization. This is about organization and this is about maybe your relationship to your things to your lifestyle at that moment, right. Because your needs change or interests change, your hobbies change and your relationships with your stuff changes, doesn’t it?

Heather Nickerson 04:03
Yes, definitely overtime. And I’m so glad you brought up Marie Kondo because her whole set premise is that if doesn’t bring you joy, don’t keep it with Iris Chartio that my daughter, we would never be able to clean or organize her room because everything brings her joy, whether it’s medicine, and Swedish Ceph meeting is less about does this bring you joy? If it does, that’s great. That’s fabulous. But it’s more about what do you want to happen to this item? When you’re no longer here? Which friend or a loved one do you want to have? Why do you want them to have it like why is it a cherished part of you? You’ve kept it for all these years. What do you want to happen next? Like kind of who’s that next safe keeper of this item? Or if it’s the mundane stuff just like hey, I have this I bought it in a thrift store three years back. It currently brings me joy. I love it. I use it every day. But you don’t need to keep it when I’m gone. You can donate it, you can sell it okay , that’s putting yourself in order.

Michael Hughes 05:00
I got so interested and I can see why you know, you’re really interested in this subject, given your work with artifacts, can you tell us what, what artifacts is all about.

Heather Nickerson 05:08
So it’s Artifcts, we spell it A-R-T-I-F-C-T-S, so there is no second a. But that’s Artifcts.com, or also our online app, Google Play or the App Store. But we let you capture, preserve and share the history, the stories, the meaning, and also the value behind all your stuff. And why this is so important is that six years ago, my mother passed away completely out of the blue. And as the eldest son only girl, I essentially inherited 6000 square feet of stuff. And my brothers were like, good luck with that. And it was, because I could tell very quickly what the valuable items were. But we had a really hard time knowing what were the things that my mother cherished most? What would she have wanted us to keep in the family to tell her story for future generations? And also, what would she have been like? Yeah, that was fine, I liked it. But go ahead and sell it or go ahead and donate it, or we just didn’t know about optics, they cannot talk just like photos, they cannot tell you their story and their history. In this case, only my mother could have told us those stories as histories of her stuff. And she was no longer here. So for us, we created artifacts to ensure that anyone anywhere has the ability to safely and securely pass down the stories and the history along with their stuff.

Michael Hughes 06:33
That is so interesting, because, you know, at least we were speaking, you know, on behalf of the United Church problems, and we, we are independent living centers, we deal with a lot of folks that are obviously doing these sorts of transitions. And, you know, when we think about, you know, having to manage a household and maybe needing a little bit more help and wanting to simplify and wanting to, you know, you’re talking about, essentially breaking up with things, you know, you’re leaving communities, you’re making choices about, you know, what to keep and what to bring, and all those things. So, the exercise you’re talking about is very relevant in that sense. And, you know, I think about, you know, if I have, if I can’t take an old collector car that I have, maybe I can just take like the gear shift knob, and take it with me and sort of have that because you know, when I think about our stuff we talk about, you know, not just how you how it looks, but you know how it feels in your hand, you know, that sort of handshake you have for things that you love those objects that you love, right? So there’s a way to kind of compromise so that you’re not losing the entire car, you’re maybe memorializing the car online and keeping a small piece of it just to have that experience, right?

Heather Nickerson 07:43
Yes, that’s so true. Because I think a lot of what ties us to our stuff is our emotional connection with it. Like we feel something we look at a thing, it reminds us of a time a place person, we have that emotion behind it, which is why sometimes it’s so hard to let go of yourself, which is where Swedish death cleaning, I think it’s, it’s brilliant in that when you are choosing to let go or pass on or rehome an item, you’re also giving the story with that. So you’re saying, dear daughter, I want you to have this item here are all the reasons why this is why it matters. To me, this is what it makes me think of, this is what it makes me feel you’re sharing those memories, those emotions, with the person that you’re essentially rehoming or gifting the item to. So it’s not a sad goodbye, you’re not tossing it in a garbage bin or a recycling bin or putting it out on the side of the street free or having a yard sale and watching your possessions you know, walk off with no future contact with the art of Swedish death cleaning, you’re really able to ensure that story, the history, the memory goes along with the actual object, and you’re making a very conscious choice as you go through it, that you’re choosing who is going to love this item as much as you are who’s going to cherish it, or who’s gonna be really intrigued by it, or even just who’s going to keep it in the family. Sometimes it’s who’s got the largest house that can keep this for the next generation that can also be a consideration. It doesn’t always have to be strictly sentimental. It can also be very functional and practical. But that’s really that’s the I think that’s where the joy comes in is that you’re able to do this to again, simplify your life de stress when it comes to stuff and to your point with you’re talking about independent living, enabling you to there’s no way 4000 square feet of stuff is going to fit into say a 1200 square foot you know apartment, so enables you to make those decisions involving your loved ones as you go through the process. And it’s not you know, you know, we’re

Michael Hughes 09:39
talking a lot about transition to senior living and things like that. I still can’t get past that acquaintance means not so it sounds so morbid. But you know, if I’m going through this in my mind, what I was just thinking about was, you know, people have these intersections with objects throughout their lives, you know, And I can think of my son, and how he had his paper baby blanket. And then we had his Maybe he got it as first aid plus on a test or things like that. And those are things that will naturally leave us or have left us. But when you think about when he thinks about it, like, you know, years later, years later, like, What did my old baby blanket look like, you know, or whatever, you know, then digital service like yours and others, that can really sort of just support these intersections. And just letting things go, right. I mean, it’s just, I mean, there’s a virtual closet out there and never gets bought.

Heather Nickerson 10:33
It’s a virtual closet, you can always go back and look at and reminisce and share with others . The beauty is that you’re not just it’s not something sitting in a box, taking up space in your house. You could TierPoint keep a piece of the item with the baby blanket, keep a square and frame it or do you know, there’s many creative ways to utilize that type of thinking of upcycling into something new from an old object. But I think the really one thing I do want to stress is we call it Swedish death cleaning. But you don’t have to be on death’s doorstep to do it. I promise you that even like 12 year old glass, who likes to organize or clean your room, just like you want to die? Clean it? Well, I mean, it’s pretty isn’t that mean state. So she knows exactly what my response is going to be. But it’s very true. And in fact, a lot of folks we do I do a lot of work with folks who are in the downsizing process. And that is where I think this is really helpful. Because you’re in your 60s, you’re in your 70s, you are vibrant, you are full of life, you are living a very abundant life, but you’re having to make decisions or transitions. And that, again, is where it’s a great time to stop and reflect and think about your stuff and think about what you want to happen next. And that’s really again, where is the entire art of this process all about? What happens next?

Michael Hughes 11:50
And that’s the thing because it also that it’s an interesting reflection on your life, where you are right now where you’ve been, it’s a moment that can enlist a lot of pride, I think and the things that you might have accumulated, I think it’s, it’s interesting to note, the kind of, you know, this person might like this, like, might like that. But it sort of does open the door for other things like people need advanced directives people are talking about, you know, where am I going with donating money, or other types of decisions, it’s, and back to the point where it’s not just a one and done and you can do this several points in your life, you know, because I, you must hear this all the time, you have no one’s gonna want my stuff. No one’s going to want my stuff, right. So this is a way it may be validated. People may want your answer to that question, yes or no? Right? Oh, they actually don’t want my stuff. Great. I can donate it all. Or I can have a big estate sale, or I can do this. But what do you say to people when they say that sort of thing to you?

Heather Nickerson 12:46
I will first say when I hear no one wants my stuff? I usually jump up and say that is not true. Have you told them the stories behind your stuff? Have you shared the history? And I can say after a couple of years of doing this day in day out. So many people are under the impression no one wants my stuff. The New York Times Wall Street Journal Atlantic, every major publication has talked about how no one wants this item or that item or no one wants your stuff, your grandparents stuff. But when we talk with our actual members, and we hear the stories of well, once I told my sons, his stories behind the three brass trays and hanging in our home for decades, they each one one, or you know, it’s that type of when you share the history in the story. It’s amazing what happens. Even though I’ve got a great example of my grandmother’s China, she, you know, tried to give the China away to others in the family. And no one wanted it. And I think I was like further down the pecking order of who got asked about China. And I’d love to entertain and cook and I was like, Sure, I would love the time to grab them. And my thought was I may not use it every day, but I’ll keep it in the family and keep the options open. And then everyone in the family thought it was a gift from her to her and grandfather during their wedding. And I finally sat down with her. I was like they will tell me the story about the time that I’m going to keep it up. I want to know the history and story. And she told this amazing story about when they were stationed overseas and Liberia in 1957. And how the ambassador came to her and said, Dear Martha, you have to start entertaining yourself, and you need to go to China for 12. And imagine trying to get us out of China into Liberia Africa in the 1950s it was not easy. So now knowing the story it’s I mean, in my mind such a cool story. Definitely. And it was amazing once we shared our artifact with China. We then shared it with a broader family and a bunch of folks were like hey, how did you get grumbling in China? Like Well I think

Michael Hughes 14:44
China is just such an obvious example, especially if you know if they’re a silver rim and it can’t be microwavable or you know, things like that, but, boy, and that’s true. You know, that strikes me that you know, the stuff that may be most valuable to people may not just have a lot of mana Terry value to it, right? I mean, it just may just be this odd like a ticket stub or something like that.

Heather Nickerson 15:05
And that’s what we’ve also seen too is that first, as everyone says, no one wants myself. And we quickly debunk that myth. And it’s when you share the story, share the history. Typically, you have takers for your things. The other piece is that when you sit down and you start thinking about reflecting on your stuff, you’re going through the Swedish death cleaning process, you’re picking up an object, you’re thinking about it, what do you want to happen to this? It’s amazing that when we look at how you’re attached to items, it’s often not the most valuable items that will cause you most angst of letting go of the jewelry, the artwork, the crystal, sometimes those are easier decisions. Sometimes it’s really, it’s the tough decisions, or what we call chart value. And it’s that sentimental feeling or that it’s attached to a really precious memory. It could be you know, a letter that your mother sent you back when you were graduating college, or maybe it’s a voicemail you’ve had in your phone for, you know, 15 years from your grandpa’s, it’s those items that you want to keep you want to keep close to you’re not willing or ready to let go of those items. And that’s okay, when you’re Swedish death cleaning, you don’t have to get rid of everything. In fact, you’re supposed to keep the items that are nearest and dearest to you, and just ensure that your loved ones know what happens with them. When you’re no longer here,

Michael Hughes 16:24
you know, and I never thought about voicemails as being mementos, but of course they are. Of course they are. And that’s it and another opportunity for digital. Obviously, it’s already digitized. So or maybe it’s not, maybe it’s a cassette tape from an old, you know, phone answering machine and things like that. Alright, so you’ve sold me on the concept, but I want to, let’s say we give it a go. And we have a lot of stuff. Here we are collectors. So how does someone get started with a Swedish death clinic?

Heather Nickerson 16:52
So it’s really simple to start. Oftentimes, we hear the hardest part is picking what to start with first. So it’s as easy as picking an object, it could be any object and pick it up, look at it. Think about it, like taking a moment to pause and reflect on this object doesn’t have to be long, but a minute, 30 seconds. Once you’ve thought about it, and thought about what it means to you, and any memories associated with it. Then think about what you want to happen next to this object? Do you want to keep it if you’re downsizing or moving? Or even if you’re just staying in place and trying to get better organized? Do you want to keep it? Do you want to rehome it? If you want to rehome it? That’s going to get it? Is it a lucky family member? Friend? Do you want to donate it? Do you want to sell it? What do you want to happen next with this object? And that’s really how the process works. You can go, you can take it box by block, you can take it closet by closet, you can take it room by room, I wouldn’t recommend trying to do an entire house all at once. That will be exhausting. But you simply start with an object, pause and reflect for a moment. And then think about what you want to happen next. Once you’ve done that, if you want to jot down a little you know, a handwritten note is always great or post it but just especially jot down your intentions. And then finally reach out if you’re going to rehome the object, reach out to that loved one or friend and let them know like, dear brother, you’re going to be the lucky inheritor of my you know, whatever that object happens to be. And let them know that and then you can always, you know, whenever the timing is right for you arrange a time to that exchange or to rehome the object. Same if you’re donating, reach out to the charity and know you’re donating an object or if you’re selling it, contact either an estate sale location near you, or you’re gonna list it on an auction house or whatever that happens to be. But it enables you to kind of very logically work through this is what this object is, this is what it means to me and why it matters why I’ve kept it, this is what I want to happen to it. And then that final step is actually executing on the what do you want to happen to it next phase,

Michael Hughes 18:57
I’ve been, you know, it’s that whole thing. I have collections of collections here. And that’s actually a question for you. But I’ve been looking at this. This is a 1960s teak, Danish pepper grinder. And I’ve been looking at this and thinking, oh, did I find this in this antique shop on a trip when I was doing it? That’s really interesting to kind of bring that home. But then, you know, you’ve got single objects, but then you also have collections. That’s what’s called as my mind you know, and collections are one where, you know, the joy of me having a single dance, teak pepper grinder is great, but having eight of them and they all look great as a collection on a table somewhere is another thing too, you know so so you think we can think about things as a singular How do you think about things as a collection?

Heather Nickerson 19:42
That’s the beauty of Swedish death meanings. You don’t have to be a minimalist to Swedish death leap. You can look at an entire collection of pepper shakers. I love and I’ve got a great memory of buying them over in Denmark and I was with my best friend or my sibling or myself or whoever they happen to be. Whatever the story is, you can essentially choose to either keep or rehome the entire collection. Or if you don’t, you know, we were talking earlier about, I think you had the example about keeping the knob on the gearshift. If you don’t have space to keep the entire collection, you can still document the story, document the memory behind the entire collection, but keep one piece of it. But that’s really what I love about the Swedish death cleaning process, as opposed to some of the other ways of cleaning and decluttering and downsizing that are more minimalist focused. Swedish death, cleaning is not forced you to be a minimalist, you’re allowed to love your stuff, you’re allowed to embrace your collections we use, you’re encouraged to tell the story behind them and the history behind them and make decisions of what happens with them. But you’re not forced to only choose one or oh my gosh, you can’t have any collections, they take up too much space. Not at all.

Michael Hughes 20:53
Very good. Well, we are going to get, I mean, this has been a terrific discussion, definitely learning a lot about it. And it’s actually very reassuring, you know, just to know how warm the process can be and how accommodating the process can be. And I just wish it wasn’t called Swedish death cleaning. But that’s just me. You know, it could be Swedish. What’s next, cleaning or something like that, but that’s just me. But, you know, we, I think I told you before, we do have a partner podcast where we like to ask our guests three questions. And those questions are about aging, because this is the art of aging. But before we do that, are there any other tips or things that you could share? You know, for people that are looking to get engaged with the Swedish death cleaning process? And importantly, where can we find artifacts?

Heather Nickerson 21:42
Sir, I always say in the Swedish death cleaning side, if you’re going through the process, take the object, think about it, add the story, add the history. I would also say regardless of however, you’re choosing to do this process, if you can include a video or an audio file, with the object of your choosing to give it to a Lakota friend. That is I think that’s the gift that keeps on giving, like being able to hear your mother’s voice tell you why this necklace mattered to her, or being able to hear your grandfather’s voice telling you why you’re getting the star from the Christmas tree like that, that is super duper special. So at artifacts, you can do that all in one, when you make the artifact you have audio videos that as it’s all there. But if you don’t use artifacts, I think it’s really important to think about kind of, we live in a digital world, in a multimedia based world. I think you know, back in the day, it was just enough to have a little sheet of paper and write down dear so and so this is what it is, this is where it’s going. But I think nowadays, especially the next generation kids or grandkids, having that added video or audio is so heartwarming. So I would encourage all of you if you’re going to embark on this process, definitely consider a digital and Multimedia Solutions as well. And then where are you again, where you can find us? It’s artifacts.com. We’re in the Google Play or Apple App Store.

Michael Hughes 23:04
That’s awesome. So depot for listeners artifacts, and that is still AR T IFC T S. Perfect. All right, Heather, you’re ready to get into her three questions. Let’s go. I love this part of the show. Okay, so this is the part of the show where we asked our guests three questions with their own perspectives on aging. And here’s question number one. When you think about how you’ve aged Heather, what do you think has changed about you or grown with you that you really like about yourself?

Heather Nickerson 23:30
So I would say I think My patience has definitely grown over time. I think that the things now where I’m like, Alright, like this is gonna take a little bit longer than I thought back in my 20s. No, like, I could not sit still, I was always on the go, always moving. And I think now especially, you know, having a family and even me having, especially your preteen in the house, my patience is tested every single day. And I do like the fact that I think I’m a much more patient person, which is probably good all around. It comes in handy when running a business to have to have patients that, you know, deadlines may slip or things may not happen on your timeline. But that’s okay.

Michael Hughes 24:11
That’s terrific. And then question number two, what has surprised you the most about you, as you’ve aged?

Heather Nickerson 24:16
I think probably the biggest surprise so far is that I don’t really feel any older per se. Like I think in my mind, like oh my gosh, like when I hit 40 I was gonna feel older or not feel more mature is going to physically and mentally feel different. And I think for me, I sometimes actually still even forget, like, what age I am. And I’ve got a really funny story where I was at a border crossing overseas, traveling overseas, and they were confirming my you know how old my passport was and I gave the wrong answer. And I was off by two years. I just completely like it. I guess I don’t know. I don’t think of myself as any older. I don’t feel older. I still feel like me. Maybe it’s not the best way to describe it, but I don’t know how to describe it. So I thought I’d feel very differently by now.

Michael Hughes 25:04
Yeah. And I think what we’re trying to encourage people, I mean, that’s a terrific story. And I also think it’s a through line to with other guests that we’ve had, you know, in talking about that how you, you know, the way that we are I reflect on it is that, you know, your body is going to get older, but what’s special about you grows richer over time. And that’s the added experiences and perspectives, but the things you hold dear, your personality, the things you like, about all those things are just through lines, which I think is very helpful. And then question number three, is there someone that you’ve met or been in your life that has set a good example for you in aging someone that inspires you to age abundantly?

Heather Nickerson 25:45
Yes, definitely. Back when I was at the Central Intelligence Agency.

Michael Hughes 25:52
Wait, wait, you were an analyst for the Central Intelligence Agency?

Heather Nickerson 25:55
Yes, I was. That was my first career.

Michael Hughes 25:59
Another podcast, Heather’s gonna spill the beans. Oh, no, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to cut you off?

Heather Nickerson 26:06
No, it’s great. It’s the many sides of me. Yeah, I had this mentor that was just so striking and amazing. And she had broken through the ranks, she had essentially broken through every glass ceiling, there was a national at the agency, and she was so well respected. And so just, she was a powerhouse. And to me that was so inspirational, and how she approached aging and age. Like she truly would always tell me, eight is just a number. But she like she showed me that every single day, like I have no doubt she to this day, could probably kick my butt in any cardio exercise we ever would do. And she just didn’t slow down. She just took life like, you know, one adventure after the next and even when she retired. She didn’t I mean, I think she retired on a Friday and Monday, she was already advising on a board, like she was just, she was that is that person and still is to this day, a huge inspiration to me, and really someone that I look to you and I think about how do I want to age, I always tell my husband like, I want to be just like her like that is my goal. So

Michael Hughes 27:09
That’s absolutely true. I’m so happy that you’ve had someone like that in your life. Is this what a great inspiration? Well, Heather, this has been a terrific podcast, I’ve learned so much. Even if I’m poking fun at the name all the time. Sorry about that. But I just really, really value your time and, and sharing with our listeners, these tips. Just our relationships with our things, you know, wow. It can go really deep. And thank you for giving us some pathways to deal with them as our own bodies, relationships and all that change. So, and oh, by the way, thank you to the listeners for listening to this episode of The Art of aging, which is part of the abundant aging podcast series from United Church homes. And we do want to hear from you. What do you think about Swedish death cleaning? What do you think about what Heather shared today? Who’s your aging hero, it was changed about you that you really liked about yourself as you age. Tell us about this at the abundantagingpodcast.com. You can also find us on youtube under United Church homes. And also check out the Ruth Frost Parker Center, which is the thought leadership side of United Church homes. We’re doing an October sympozium. Every year in 2023. This year, we’re doing one on combating ageism that we’re really excited about so please check that out. And once again, Heather, where can people find you?

Heather Nickerson 28:27
Thank you so much, Mike, and thank you to all of our listeners, folks can find us at artifcts.com Or in the App Store.

Michael Hughes 28:37
Thanks for listening. We’ll see you next time.