Reykjavík’s venerable Hólavallagarður cemetery is 180 years old this year, RÚV reports. Hólavallagarður was consecrated in 1838 and served as the capital’s principal cemetery for almost a century.
“The cemetery is very unique in Europe because it has never been reorganized or dug under,” explained Hólavallagarður caretaker Heimir Janusarson. “We have the first grave, we have the cemetery’s developmental history. You can read its planning history. You can read its vegetation history – when a [new species of] tree arrived in the country – because they were always planted in the cemetery first [because it was an] enclosed area and there [were] no sheep or horses to eat them.”
The cemetery is, indeed, almost a little arboretum in the center of Reykjavík, even though according to the cemetery profile on kirkjugardur.is “[n]o trees were planted in the cemetery...until after 1900; moreover, there was not much planting until between the World Wars.” The main species include birch, two types of rowan, spruce and poplar as well as larch, members of the willow genus, and various other kinds of bushes. Heimir also points out that Hólavallagarður is rich with mushrooms and moss, and even home to snails that can’t be found anywhere else in Iceland.
Hólavallagarður is the final resting place for numerous important and luminary figures in Icelandic history, not least Iceland’s independence hero Jón Sigurðsson (1811-1879), whose birthday (June 17) was selected as the country’s National Day, as well as one of Iceland’s most preeminent painters, Jóhannes Sveinsson Kjarval (1885-1972). Guðrún Oddsdóttir, the first person to be buried in Hólavallagarður, is said to be the cemetery’s guardian spirit.
All of the available plots were allocated by 1932 and so today, burials only take place there in reserved plots, although it is increasingly common for urns to be buried in previously used graves with the permission of the license holder. In this way, families may continue to be buried in their ancestral plot.
You can read more about Hólavallagarður (in English) on kirkjugardar.is, including a translated excerpt of a book that art historian Björn Th. Björnsson wrote about it to commemorate its 150th anniversary in 1988.