The Guardian of the Graveyard

Iron Cross of The Guardian
Iron Cross of The Guardian

Last week I was feeling restless and needing to get out of the house to take some more pictures to add to my collection of photos in Iceland. My husband and I decided to visit one of Reykjavik’s most interesting historical places, the cemetery at Hólavallagarður. Considering it’s October and usually I make a trip during this time of year to pay my respects to the dead, either family or not I was curious to see what the graveyard here was like. One of our friends, a native Icelander had told us, “it is a very beautiful graveyard with many older headstones .” She had said little else regarding it so I didn’t know very much about it at the time we went to visit.  We took a short bus trip from the center on number twelve and got off just a little past the entrance to the site. We left a coin offering to the dead before pushing past the well oiled gate and entering the quiet sanctuary.  My first impression was of the quietness under the dark foliage overhead. The cemetery was very well laid out however, fairly crowded so we had to be careful where we stepped. There were many older headstones with beautiful carvings in stone. Most in the front where we entered were from the 1800’s. I was surprised they weren’t older but I found out later the reason why.  We walked carefully through the pathways overgrown with moss and showing signs of autumn as the plants and trees were already changing into their bright flames of fall.  As the shadows deepened the farther into the graveyard we went I began to feel the usual pressure in my head I feel when there are spirits close enough to me to try and get my attention. In most cemeteries I have been in it usually quiet and restful without to much interaction from spirits other than the memories of lives gone by. This graveyard was different, it was clean and quiet but seemed full of peripheral life. Normally I am a very grounded and calm person that has what I would call strong shields from unwanted intrusion mentally, but here my head just kept hurting. Off to the far edge of where we were walking we saw a small mausoleum that I wanted a picture of so we kept weaving around the paths and tried to reach the side. The closer we got I began to notice a very large tree, it was next to a large cross and gravesite that at the time I didn’t notice too much because I was bemused at how large the tree was. Trees for the most part in Iceland are little sturdy beings that resist the wind by staying small.  I took several pictures of the tree and then we moved on.

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As we wound our way through the to the center we found a display board describing the layout of the graveyard that included a little bit of history regarding the site of the graveyard which explained the later dating of the headstones we found quite a bit. Reykjavik is one of the oldest cities in iceland and there was a small chain of graveyards that were moved consistently closer to the towns center. The first in town graveyard was originally put in a small area off to the side of the churchyard on the corners of the current streets Aðalstræti and Kirkjustræti. Originally named  Víkurgarður, the cemetery was later called Fógetagarður, which sort of translates to, graveyard of the magistrates. Víkurgarður was Reykjavík’s cemetery for over 800 years,  even though it measured only about 1600 square feet. The last  burials there were in 1838, about thirty generations of Reykjavík citizens were eventually buried there. The amount of graves in the small space led to a new graveyard site being needed as the town continued to grow. A new site was picked out at the time closer to the outskirts and edge of town. The old site, Fógetagarður, is now the site of a park with a monument and statues in place commemorating the graves of all who went before.  The new site Hólavallagarður, was ready for burials in the summer of 1838, however it was a little bit of time before anyone was buried here. In Iceland there are still some customs regarding the dead one might consider a bit odd, and at the time in 1838 these customs although not looked upon happily  were still part of the beliefs and traditions there of.  It was believed that the first person to be buried who had died would become the guardian and protector of the graveyard for all eternity, since at the time there were also conflicting beliefs regarding eternal peace in the afterlife no one wanted their relative to have to watch over the graveyard. This person’s’ body would not decay and would stay in it’s original state as well.  I was surprised upon reading this as I had never heard of a custom like this yet. The person eventually chosen was a woman named  Guðrún Oddsdóttir, she was the wife of a magister and the town council felt her worthy of the task. The story went on to explain which grave was hers and when she had been buried there in November 23 of 1938. The large iron cross with the tree next to it was hers. I was very excited to know this and so had to go back to really see the grave site again which we decided to do on our way back out. It is hard to describe the cleanliness and order that was present in the graveyard as the headstones clearly marked the age of many people buried there. I can only attribute it to the care of the Guardian ensuring the helpers keep everything beautiful for the resting spirits there. When we finally found our way back to the tree I asked my husband to pick up the branch blocking the view of the headstone so I could get a better photo. As I finished the shot and began to walk backwards on the stone fence I felt a brush on my shoulder. I looked down and found a leaf gently resting there, it seemed as if she had touched me and I felt blessed by her warmth and protection. I do believe that the citizens of Reykjavik picked the most lovely guardian for their graveyard that could be found, her spirit lives on there, in that tree, and I do believe she is very much full of peace and contentment there. Guðrún Oddsdóttir resides in that place to bless not only the dead, but the living too.

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