‘Swedish Death Cleaning’ isn’t about being neat and tidy. It’s about having a purpose

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Amy Poehler, center, produces “The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning"
Amy Poehler, center, produces “The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning,” hosted by Johan Svenson, left, Katarina Blöm and Ellinor Engström.
(Matt Genovese / For The Times)

You’ve probably never heard of Katarina Blom, Ella Engström or Johan Svenson, but they’re here to help America get serious about cleaning up before moving on. As the hosts of Peacock’s new “The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning” (based on the 2017 book by Margareta Magnusson), a psychologist (Blom), an organizer (Engström) and a designer (Svenson) are sent to the homes of people nearing their final days to help sort, organize and otherwise get their stuff in order. And bonus: The series features executive producer Amy Poehler as narrator. The Envelope sat down with the whole gang in New York City in April to discuss what it means to death clean, what about Americans surprised them and the grand importance of taking a fika break.

There was a whole casting process that went on to find your hosts. Amy, what were you looking for?

Amy Poehler: We wanted obviously Swedish people who had different sets of skills, but you didn’t want to be saying, “This is Sweden!” Sweden is many things, but you wanted it to celebrate differences in everyone and also make people feel like they were a collective unit, a team.


Katarina, Ella and Johan — were you familiar with Amy and who she was before all this?

Katarina Blom: Oh, yes! I love “Parks and Rec.”

Johan Svenson: I’m a meme lover, so I like the Amy memes. You know the “cool mom” meme?

Poehler: I love being a meme in any way, or a Halloween costume.

Clutter experts talk with a man in his basement, where he has kept all of his late parents’ belongings.
The Swedish death cleaners talk with Godfrey Riddle, who kept all of his late parents’ belongings — even their vacuum cleaner — in his basement because he didn’t know what was most important.

Why are Swedes the right type of people to have created death cleaning as a concept?

Poehler: Swedes don’t take themselves too seriously. They’re very direct, and that clarity is a kindness. I love the idea of a transformational show, but I’m not drawn to the ways in which people feel like they got beat up by the process. But this was an interesting idea: How do you want to live your life while you’re still with us? What things are important to you? Also, I love Sweden.

Svenson: In the casting process, I said I didn’t want to be in a makeover show where you just go out shopping and buy stuff for people. But when I read [Magnusson’s] book, I thought, “Well, this is super interesting.”


Blom: As a psychologist, this is like one’s wet dream to be able to talk about death, an existential issue like this. For me, it was like, “Hell, yeah, let’s go!” And this show differs from others: I feel that we give a bit more space for the person. We try to connect and understand.

Ella Engström: It’s about the person you help. You go with the flow and the process evolves, depending on where they are in their journey.

Poehler: We did have to build in a coffee break.

So fika wasn’t originally planned as part of the show?

Poehler: No, fika is a ritual, a way in which you stop your work to connect and reflect. It became this great way for the death cleaners to talk about where they’re at, like staying in the present moment.

Three Swedish people sit at a bistro table drinking coffee outside a coffee cart.
Johan Svenson, Katarina Blöm and Ellinor Engström enjoy their fika.


Blom: The first day, we were like, “What? There is no fika?” Fika is really holy.

Engström: Really serious stuff. Two times a day, before and after lunch.

Svenson: And it became like a reverse thing — because we were creating a safe space for the participant, and production created a safe space for us. It’s like we were in our own reality.

Poehler: We lost millions of dollars shutting down for fika.

What about your experiences making this show surprised you about Americans?

Engström: You have duplicates of a lot of things. Like in Sweden, you never have a cake stand just for Halloween.

Blom: I had a prejudice that Americans would be very positive. But throughout the show I noticed how people tend to deal with heavier emotions in a slightly more avoidant way than in Sweden.

Svenson: The other side of the Swedish coin is that [we] can be a bit dry. [Americans] have this “official self.” Which I think is beautiful, because it’s also taking social responsibility in the moment. You make it pleasant for everybody.


Poehler: I think it’s interesting that the Swedish language has far less words [than English]. When you have a language with fewer words, your actions are where you speak loudly — and I think this show is really about the idea of, “How can your next action change your life for the better?”

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Aug. 24, 2023

We have TV shows here about hoarders, Marie Kondo [for organizing] and now death cleaning. It feels like we live in a binge-and-purge society. What’s your take on the big picture?

Svenson: One thing about minimalism in Sweden is that’s the result of doing death cleaning. It’s not an aesthetic that we should reach [for]; it’s about sorting your stuff and finding the purpose for it.

Engström: You change during your life, and so do your needs. It’s an ongoing process. So once we are helping, it’s like peeling an onion layer by layer, so you can be more bold to make tougher decisions about your things.

Svenson: It’s not a show about being neat or tidy.

Blom: With death cleaning, we’re not interested in the amount of items you have. We’re interested in what’s the purpose, the need [for them]? It’s a huge invitation to become clear with yourself in both your life and your home. We gently guide people, like, “Oh, you haven’t been down in your basement for how long? What is lurking down there?”


Engström: “What’s in the corners?”

Poehler: That’s the way to put it: This show gently pokes around in America’s basement.