In her international bestseller The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning Margareta Magnusson introduced the world to the Swedish tradition of döstädning, or “death cleaning”—clearing out your unnecessary belongings so others don’t have to do it for you. Now, unburdened by (literal and emotional) baggage, Magnusson is able to focus on what makes each day worth living. In her new book she reveals her discoveries about aging—some difficult to accept, many rather wondrous. She reflects on her idyllic childhood on the west coast of Sweden, the fullness of her life with her husband and five children, and learning how to live alone. Throughout, she offers advice on how to age gracefully, such as: wear stripes, don’t resist new technology, let go of what doesn’t matter, and more.
As with death cleaning, it’s never too early to begin. The Swedish Art of Aging Exuberantly shows all readers how to prepare for and understand the process of growing older and the joys and sorrows it can bring. While Magnusson still recommends decluttering (your loved ones will thank you!), her ultimate message is that we should not live in fear of death but rather focus on appreciating beauty, connecting with our loved ones, and enjoying our time together.
Wise, funny, and eminently practical, The Swedish Art of Aging Exuberantly is a gentle and welcome reminder that, no matter your age, there are always fresh discoveries ahead, and pleasures both new and familiar to be encountered every day.
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
The year I was born, the life expectancy for a Swedish woman was a little over sixty-six years and for a Swedish man was a little under sixty-four. My mother died at sixty-eight; she liked to follow the rules, while my father died at eighty-one—I’m sure he would have lived much longer if my mother had been there with him.
If I go by the actuarial tables, I should be long dead by now. If I go by the experience of most of my family, I’m practically a spring chicken at age eighty-six. My great-grandmother died at one hundred. Is it possible I could live for fourteen more years? It would seem so, but I think I won’t. Or at least, some days, I hope I won’t.
What does anyone do with one’s time when one lives so long? Well, a few years back, one thing I did was write a book about a tradition we have here in Sweden. The tradition was sometimes called döstädning, literally in English “death cleaning,” and because it is something that older women do—and society can often be very uninterested in older women’s day-to-day lives—this practical, useful philosophy had not yet been noticed. So, I wrote a book called The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning; it came out in thirty-two countries and is aimed at all of us—even men!—who are in the latter half of life, though I have heard from a number of enterprising thirtysomethings who say they’ve already put the idea to work and have found it very useful, bringing calmness and order to their lives.
The idea is that we should not leave a mountain of crap behind for our loved ones to clean up when we die. Why would your family and friends want to take time out of their busy lives to clean up your mess when you clearly could have taken care of it yourself? Remember, your kids and your other loved ones may want some of your stuff when you are gone—not all of your stuff. So, we can help them narrow down the selection.
The book and the idea seemed to take on a life of their own once the book was published. For a year or two, I suddenly became very busy, much busier than I ever imagined I would be deep into my eighties. I found myself sitting for press interviews and answering questions about death cleaning from around the world, from Vietnam to the United Arab Emirates to Germany. I even traveled to London for the publication of the book there. In many of the interviews and articles, I was asked to show how I do my own death cleaning at home. By the time the whirl of press activity ended, I had death cleaned my little apartment so many times, I had practically nothing left!
I felt light and clearheaded. With all the stuff of my life no longer weighing on me, I began to refocus on what I would do now that I had no more death cleaning ahead.
If I end up following the footsteps of my great-grandmother, I might possibly have more than a decade of life still left to fill, so I began to look around me to see what remained, what I had in fact actually kept after all my death cleaning. I found I’d kept my memories and I now lived in a smaller, simpler way. I could actually see my life, now that there was less mental and physical clutter; I could enjoy my life more fully, even though of course there are other difficulties that come with aging.
All my life I have been an artist and a painter. Suddenly I am a writer. I like it. But it is new.
The following essays are discoveries I have made about becoming very old—some of the discoveries were hard to accept, but many of them have been rather wondrous. In thinking and writing about them, my mind wandered to often pleasant and funny memories—and some not so pleasant or fun—that I hope will entertain you and take you to places and times you may never have experienced.
Much of this book was written while all of us were caught in the lockdowns and the pandemic—when death felt very near our doors and tragically claimed so many lives the world over. And yet in writing during that time, I was forced to focus on what made each day worth living.
I didn’t want to write a long book. Old people don’t want to read four hundred pages—they may not live that long. But I hope this book is also for younger people, who can get some tips about what to enjoy and watch out for as their own lives grow longer. Just like death cleaning, you can never start too early in preparing yourself for and understanding the aging process, and the wonders and sorrows it will have in store for you.
In writing this book I have tried to include advice I myself needed as time marched forward, as history flapped by, as I stood in the middle of my own strange life and sometimes felt like a lonely pioneer, sometimes the happiest woman on earth, sometimes just completely clueless.
Is my advice particularly Swedish? Some of it. Are there secrets of Swedish aging? Perhaps, and perhaps I have managed to unearth a few here. What I do know is that as a nationality we are certainly not as long-lived as the famous Okinawans of Japan, but Sweden is not doing too badly. Our current life expectancy averages 81.9 years, making us the thirteenth most long-lived country on the planet. If you are expecting that the Swedish secrets I will tell you will involve jumping into the frozen North Sea to stay young or taking long saunas, like some of my fellow older Swedes do, or eating ground-up reindeer horn in your morning muesli, I will disappoint you. I can’t recommend these things, particularly if your constitution is not as strong as it used to be. Besides, I am sure I would not survive a frozen swim in the North Sea and would need to be very careful not to slip and fall in the sauna.
But perhaps my advice and discoveries are “Swedish” in that as a nationality, we tend to be quite blunt, clear-eyed, and unsentimental. Aging is often difficult, but it doesn’t have to be if you approach it in a way that isn’t too filled with drama or with dread. And if you can find a way to make aging itself into an art, where you are creative in how you approach each day, perhaps it can be a little easier.
Finally, because death cleaning really does not ever really end until you yourself do, I’ve included a little appendix to tell you about a few more tips I’ve discovered about perfecting your death cleaning, as well as answers to a few of the most often-asked questions that came up from readers.
So, yes, while I will always recommend continuing to death clean—your loved ones will thank you—remember that the process of death cleaning is ultimately in service to two larger points: to be less afraid of the idea of death, for it comes for all of us, and to remember that after you’ve death cleaned, no matter how ancient you become, there are always new discoveries, new mind-sets through which to see your life and the experiences you have had. And new and familiar pleasures to be had every day—even as the final visit of Mr. (or indeed Miss!) Death approaches.
Table of Contents
Have a Gin and Tonic with a Friend 7
I've known my best friend since we were eight years old. I live in Stockholm and Lola lives in Nice, but we have lovely drinks together, even during the pandemic.
The World Is Always Ending 15
I have lived through World War II, the Cold War, the Cuban Missile Crisis. Chernobyl-and now climate change. Here's how to cope with eighty years of constant doom and hold on to your sense of humor.
Don't Leave Empty-Handed 33
While of course none of us can "take it with us" after we are gone, while we are here there are so many ways to improve the world every day. I heard a little piece of advice decades ago that ended up being invaluable.
I Died Seven Years Ago-But Lived 39
My near-death experience changed the way I look at life.
Volunteer as Much as You Can 47
As you age you may have more free time than you expected. While the world may not be ending, it can always use a little extra boost. Get involved-it will help you and it will help the world.
Take Care of Your Hair-If You Have Any 63
When you are eighty you will have wrinkles, you will walk slower, you are not twenty anymore. But having nice hair is a sign that you are still in the game.
Treat Little Children, Big Children (And Grandchildren) as You Want to be Treated 71
Little children really do often soy the funniest things, and if you listen carefully you'll realize sometimes they are quite wise about life. Big children-ok, adults-like to be listened to too, and if you listen to them, you'll never have to worry that the young won't make time for you.
Don't Fall Over and Other Practical Tips for Graceful Aging 77
I fell over and it wasn't fun. Here's how to cope if you fall. And what to do so as not to.
Take Care of Something Every Day 85
On having pets and keeping plants.
Keep an Open Mind 91
I've found that having a closed mind to new things ages me and my friends more quickly than anything else. I've also realized later in life that I now only regret the things I said no to. Make sure to always say yes, so tu ne regrettes rien.
Eat Chocolate 107
No explanation needed.
The Habit of Kärt Besvár 113
A Swedish approach-well, actually, just my approach-for aging happily.
Wear Stripes 117
Stripes look good on men, women, children, and me. Stripes never go out of style-so they are cheap in the long run. Stripes may not make you look younger. But you do not look older.
Surround Yourself with the Young(er) or Busvissla to Your Younger Self 123
A lot of people past eighty complain about "today's youth." I don't. I like to have them around. They have new thoughts: they keep my brain fresh. They are a constant reminder that it is never too late to do anything, unless it really is too late (and you are dead). Until then, I still hope to tap-dance.
Appendix: Bonus thoughts and Tips on Death Cleaning 131
How to Broach One of Life's Most Important Topics with Your Loved Ones.
The World May Always Be Ending, but Spring Cleaning Always Arrives … Until the Day It Doesn't.
Death-Cleaning Discoveries in the Time of Covid and Answers to Other Questions I Have Received from Curious Novice Death Cleaners.