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Death cleaning and the Swedish art of aging exuberantly

Margareta Magnusson became a best-selling author in her 80s after urging people to try death cleaning. It's one of her secrets of healthy aging.
/ Source: TODAY

When clutter takes over your house, Swedish “death cleaning” could be the inspiration you need to get organized and get healthier in the process.

The unusual habit — at least to people outside Sweden since it’s a tradition in that country — made Margareta Magnusson a bestselling author in her 80s when she published her first book urging people to get rid of unnecessary stuff they’ve accumulated over the years.

Now 88, Magnusson explains the concept of death cleaning in plain terms in her follow-up tome.

“The idea is that we should not leave a mountain of crap behind for our loved ones to clean up when we die,” she writes in her new book, “The Swedish Art of Aging Exuberantly: Life Wisdom from Someone Who Will (Probably) Die Before You.”

“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?”

The advice is not meant to be morbid: Death cleaning is mostly about getting organized and making life simpler, not dying, Magnusson writes. It’s also not just for older people — she advises starting the habit when you turn 40.

“Keep it bare and orderly… that’s the way of living. Don’t amass things,” Magnusson tells

“Most people don’t know what they have. They just have things and they don’t need them and don’t use them even.”

Author Margareta Magnusson.
Author Margareta Magnusson.Courtesy Alexander Mahmoud

When reached her, Magnusson was sitting at the kitchen table of her death-cleaned apartment in Stockholm on a dark winter day when the sun was already setting in the early afternoon.

But she was taking her own advice about longevity and aging well, starting with:

Always have something to look forward to

For Magnusson, it can be a gin and tonic with a friend, basking in the sunshine or going for a walk in nature.

“Now I’m waiting for spring and flowers,” she says.

It’s never too late

Magnusson published her first book in her 80s and was surprised to see it become a sensation around the world, with people fascinated by death cleaning.

“It is never too late to do anything, unless it really is too late and you are dead. The moment you start thinking it is too late, then you begin to die,” she writes.

Eat chocolate

“I eat chocolate every day,” Magnusson says. “A day without that is not a good day.”

She prefers milk chocolate, even though she knows dark chocolate has more health benefits. She also doesn’t stop at just a square but likes to eat a chocolate bar.

Take care of your hair

Magnusson doesn’t think plastic surgery makes people look younger and believes nice hair is a better “workplace” than the face when it comes to maintaining an attractive appearance.

“If you do a facelift, you might not look that nice — you look like you have skin that is many (sizes) too small,” Magnusson says.

“With hair, you can (help) yourself to look a bit younger. If you have a lot of hair, you better take care of it.”

Overall, hinging your life on looking young is a bad idea, she writes.

Find comfort in routine

Many people in Sweden eat the same thing on Thursdays: split-pea soup with bits of pork, followed by thin crepe-style pancakes with berry jam and whipped cream.

Magnusson and her family kept this Thursday menu when they lived around the world — a weekly tradition everyone looked forward to.

When it comes to the daily routine, there’s a Swedish expression that roughly translates to “cherished burden,” which Magnusson thinks is a healthy way to look at the duties on her to-do list. Paying bills, for example, is annoying but she is grateful to have the money to do it and likes knowing this obligation has been taken care of.

“When it’s done, you feel good because it’s over. It can be the same if you take care of a sick friend. It’s not fun to do it, but you feel good afterwards,” she says.

Take a photo of a sentimental item — then let it go

When death cleaning, people often have a hard time getting rid of items that really should be thrown out, but have sentimental value. If that's the case, take a picture of the item, thank it, then let it go.

Have the right sort of wrinkles

“Spend more time laughing than frowning,” Magnusson writes. “If your wrinkles point upward, you’ll look happy instead of merely old.”

Don’t be scared of dying, but of living too long

Magnusson almost died seven years ago when her heart suddenly stopped. It happened so fast that she didn’t even have time to be afraid, she writes.

Her famed tidiness (and an alert friend) actually saved her life. Magnusson was staying with the friend when she suddenly felt extremely tired and went to go to sleep, but didn’t neatly fold her clothes as usual.

“Margareta is not the type of person to throw her clothes on the floor. So when (the friend) saw that in the guest room, she called the ambulance immediately,” Magnusson’s daughter, Jane, tells

“The ambulance personnel revived her, but she was dead for a while. And her friend figured this out because she hadn’t folded her clothes, which is a little bit poignant and funny. We were happy to have her back.”

For people who fear death, Magnusson says that, in her experience, it was as if someone had flipped the on-off switch. “Take it from me, someone who lived through death, it does not have to be unpleasant at all," she writes.