What Lies Beneath: The gentle art of Godfrey Riddle’s grief-pit cleaning

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Godfrey Riddle. // Photo by Brooke Tramel

Godfrey Riddle is not the kind of person to make you ugly cry. But that might change when Riddle reveals the vulnerable side—his basement—located underneath his bubbly, energetic personality. 

Announced in 2022, The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning is Peacock’s latest home/life/spiritual improvement show, and much like its Netflix peer Queer Eye—from the same production company—an entire season of the show is dedicated to sending these life coaches into KC and features the stories of local people who need help with an overwhelming mess. 

Swedish Death Cleaning began as a bestselling book in 2017 by Margareta Magnusson. The tenets of its teachings boil down to decluttering items so loved ones won’t carry this responsibility when you’re gone. Additionally, it allows the participant to recognize the essentials in their life. While simple on the surface, their practical application into the lives of a person who has formed emotional attachments to objects can mean pulling teeth emotionally. 

Produced by Amy Poehler of Parks & Recreation, this show is moving. These coaches’ skill sets are to organize, design, and uplift Riddle. With those skills in hand, the hosts are transplanted to the City of Fountains to tackle our American need to grasp material items tightly. 

Episode 5 of Season 1, entitled “What Lies Beneath,” opens with a mischievously grinning Godfrey Riddle before a haunting music sting hits, and the show suggests Riddle is hiding a terrible secret. 

For those who haven’t had the pleasure of meeting the man, Riddle is someone we’ve profiled in The Pitch several times over the years for his charitable clothing brand, Civic Saint, and his nonprofit work at Rightfully Sewn. Civic Saint is “designed to uplift those advancing the Black Lives Matter, Equal Rights, and Voter Rights movements,” and Riddle can be found wearing his designs during the show. He’s a renaissance man of kindness, but for whom the Powers That Be have never gotten the message, and the last few years have brought a flurry of Job-ian trials and tribulations that would have broken a lesser person. But not Riddle, who we can only assume awakes each day like the Energizer Bunny, with his single-minded dedication to—and love for—the people of Kansas City.

Within the episode, Swedish Death Cleaning’s hosts show up at his house to assist with the death cleaning process. What seems like a mere basement declutter is a heartache of a task. The hosts find out Riddle inherited items from both of his parents, who passed away unexpectedly, making his journey emotionally challenging.

However, the hosts provide other methods to celebrate Riddle’s parents and turn the basement into a space that evokes memories instead of sadness. 

Riddle sat down with The Pitch to discuss how the show came into his life, how it has changed his life in the last year, and so much more.

The Gentle Art Of Swedish Death Cleaning Season 1

THE GENTLE ART OF SWEDISH DEATH CLEANING — “What Lies Beneath” Episode 105 — Pictured: (l-r) Ella Engström, Katarina Blöm, Johan Svenson, Godfrey Riddle — (Photo by: Peacock)

The Pitch: Could you walk us through just how this came to happen?

Godfrey Riddle: So the casting team for Swedish Death Cleaning reached out in January of 2022 on Instagram, and I legitimately thought it was a scam because it went to my message requests. They started off the message to the effect of, you know, “Amy Poehler is doing a show in Kansas City.” And I was like, “BS, Amy Poehler is not doing anything in Kansas City.”

So we set up a quick interview, and the gentleman very quickly checked out to be legit. Ultimately, he found me because I’d had a few articles published about Civic Saint. 

I was like, “You know, this sounds like it’d be a good fit. I’ve got all this stuff in my basement for my parents, my grandfather, and my uncle, and I’ve just been sick and busy, and I just haven’t had the emotional or physical capacity to work through it.” So the long and short of it is four months later, we got approved, and we filmed in August 2022. 

Did having people with an outside lens come to view your basement make it feel worse than you originally thought? 

So I will be honest, I knew it was bad. I didn’t think it was like a catastrophe. I thought, you know, this will take a few weekends of work. If I do it all by myself or my brother helps me, you know, it’s going to be hard work. But as they showed up and we started to go through, I thought, “I don’t know, maybe you could use this help more than you think you need it.”

We had this ongoing joke throughout the show that my house was kind of like me. So on the outside, I’m very well put together—the upper levels of my home, for the most part, are well decorated. I think they’re made for me, so who cares what anyone else thinks? But then the basement was my working subconscious, where all of that grief and trauma literally and metaphorically lived.

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Photo by Brooke Tramel

Now that you have created this new space, how do you live your life differently?

It literally feels like I can breathe again. I feel lighter. That was what I felt in my body the minute the process was done. It just feels like I can actually stand up, put my shoulders back, and just be myself again. I don’t feel the weight of the literal physical space and having all of that work before me. And then, having all of that emotional work tethered to it, I finally had the time to process to the best of my ability and incorporate those emotions.

If you knew someone who wanted to start the process of Swedish Death Cleaning, what would be your advice to them?

Start slow. I think it is the key to the process. It’s like the three S’s: Start small, sort, and go slowly. 

Even in that limited timeframe, I felt like there was ample time for me to sort through every single item and create piles that I could then slowly move through and revisit to decide, do I really want to live without this? Or do I really want this to be in someone else’s life? Or do I just want to throw it away? 

The true practical tip that they gave me is to start with trash because it’s easy to identify. We literally found an entire box from my mother of just newspaper for moving. And I’m like, “Wait, so you save a box full of basic trash?” And then there was a literal box of trash that we did throw away—just empty cans. I don’t know, someone clearly made a mistake in packing.

After going through this process, what does Swedish Death Cleaning mean to you?

One word: purpose. And a phrase: to pursue purpose. And memory and legacy. I think that’s how I would sum up the whole process if I had to, like, brand it. Just the serendipity of things that can be gathered. Often, it makes me feel like even though my life journey has been a lot harder than I would have wanted it to be, and I would give anything to have my parents back, even just for a moment—it is what is supposed to be. I am where I’m supposed to be. 

How has life been since the show’s premiere?

The last year has been a whirlwind. It feels like something that happened eons ago, and since it has come out, it’s been a fun reminder. It’s also been surreal because I feel like I closed that chapter, and now I can look back on it more objectively. People have reached out and told me how it touched them, which just reminds me of why I said “yes” in the first place. People have also been reaching out to help with cancer work. I’m meeting with the American Cancer Society soon, so being able to do things like that has been amazing. 

How has your relationship with grief changed since this experience?

It’s obviously an emotional experience, and it feels fully incorporated into my identity. Before, it felt like a burden, but now it just feels like a part of my body as opposed to something outside of me that I’m carrying. That made it more difficult, but now it’s easier to take it day by day. 

Do you feel pressure to keep the space looking perfect?

Yes, and it’s hard because a basement isn’t necessarily supposed to look great if you’re just using it for storage. Right after it was finished, I would give people a tour of it, but now it really is just my space. It’s lived in. 

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Photo by Brooke Tramel

Do you find that your willingness to bring things into your home has changed?

I love making my house feel like me. That’s my whole design philosophy; my home should reflect me. It hasn’t really changed the way I decorate, but when I do bring something into my home I think about how long I might have it or what purpose it serves. It has made getting rid of things a lot easier. I used to hold on to a lot of trinkets, but now it’s easier for me to purge them without feeling guilty. 

What is the best way for people to support your work at Civic Saint?

Oh, God, well, you know, you can buy a shirt. Genuinely, that is a really great way to support because proceeds are donated back into the community through my nonprofit partners. Not only does it help me pay for cancer bills and all of those fun expenses from that time in my life, it, most importantly, powers that good work. So that’s a really easy way for people to support us, and an even easier way is to just follow us, like us, and tell someone who you think would care about us about our mission. 

You’re doing a lot of other things in the community. What do you have going on right now that people should know about?

Right now, with ArtsKC, I’m launching a creative leaders program. It’s focused on rising stars in the arts, corporate and community sectors, and anti-racist adaptive arts leadership. We train them over the course of six weeks and then appoint them to the boards of nonprofits and commissions around the region. We are all from groups and backgrounds that are typically underrepresented on boards of directors, especially in the arts. They’re trying to rebuild after COVID, and they need younger, more diverse audiences.

 The first season of The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning is now available to stream on Peacock. Riddle is the focus of Episode 5, “What Lies Beneath.”

Categories: Culture