From Iceland — A Beautiful, Mysterious Garden

A Beautiful, Mysterious Garden

Published July 14, 2011

A Beautiful, Mysterious Garden

When I was a boy I lived close to the Old Cemetery (“Gamli kirkjugarðurinn”), which is just up the hill from the pond. The cemetery is an old, mysterious place—and as a garden it is very beautiful in its Nordic way. I think this would count as my favourite place in Reykjavík. Too bad it is completely full, and thus people who die in Reykjavík are usually buried in a cemetery in Gufunes, far out in the suburbs, in a place where no one really goes until he or she pass away.
When I was a young man, the Old Cemetery was a good place to take girls on long summer nights. There is even a famous description in a book by Þórbergur Þórðarson, one of Iceland’s foremost writers, about how he manages to lose his virginity in the cemetery. This was around 1912—so the garden has long had this attraction. In Þórbergur’s case, the affair is rather grotesque, but for me the allure of the garden on a night in June or July is much more romantic. It is a nice place to sit around with a bottle of red wine or a couple of beers in summers—no disrespect meant to the dead.
I started going to the garden at an early age, when I was about seven or eight. Since then, I’ve gotten to know most of the gravestones there. It may seem morbid, but I used to roam the garden looking for people who had died in November of 1918. This was the time of the Spanish Flu, which hit very hard in Reykjavík, killing many young people.
Many illustrious Icelanders are buried in the garden: poets, politicians, artists, bishops—and it also hosts the graves of independence hero Jón Sigurðsson and his wife Ingibjörg Einarsdóttir. They both died in Copenhagen in December 1879, Ingibjörg passing away a few days after her husband. But the news of their death only reached Iceland in February the year after—the country was such a far away isolated place. Their bodily remains were subsequently moved to their home country, where they were buried with great honours in May 1880. Pictures from the funeral are quite impressive—black clad people moving through the humble town that was the Reykjavík of 1880.
Other luminaries that permanently reside in the Old Cemetery are for example poet/politician Hannes Hafstein. He was the first prime minister of Iceland, being chosen for the job by the Danish authorities in 1904. Hannes Hafstein is said to have been an extraordinary figure, in his literary outlook he was influenced by the famous Danish realist Georg Brandes—who was a great influence on Henrik Ibsen—but as a politician he was the scion of the nascent Reykjavík bourgeoisie. He is still revered by many—he was also thought to be a very good-looking man. But the latter part of his life was rather tragic. He lost his beloved wife, Ragnheiður, in 1913, and after that he started wandering around the cemetery, spending long hours at her grave, talking, and probably drinking as well. For Icelanders this makes a very strong picture—the most elegant and dashing man of the country breaking down like that in full view of the townspeople.
But the most famous grave in the Old Cemetery belongs to a man of a much lowlier origin than the independence hero and the prime minister. This is the poet, drinker, gambler and barrel maker Sigurður Breiðfjörð. Sigurður was a great representative of the rímur, the popular poetic form of the old farming society. For a long while the rímur were about the only “fun” to be had in Iceland. Sigurður Breiðfjörð was ferociously attacked by Jónas Hallgrímsson—the upcoming national poet—a romantic who thought the rímur were backward, monotonous, and basically stupid. But at that time the people liked Sigurður Breiðfjörð more than Jónas Hallgrímsson—even if he later got the upper hand.
However Breiðfjörð was in constant trouble because of his debt, drinking and dissolute living. He lived in Greenland for a while, working as a barrel maker for Danish merchants. When he moved to Reykjavík he had to fight the authorities for the right to live in the town. He was once sentenced to a flogging on account of bigamy, he finally appealed to the king in Copenhagen and the punishment was never carried out. Another famous story is that he once sold his wife for a dog.
Sigurður Breiðfjörð died at 48 in 1846, in a house that stood on Aðalstræti (which was then the main street of Reykjavík). His foe, Jónas Hallgrímsson, had died one year earlier in Copenhagen. Most likely it was drink that caused both their deaths, and it is said that on his deathbed Breiðfjörð couldn’t hold down his liquor any more.
But he is still a loved figure, not because of his poems that nobody reads anymore, but because he features as a poetic ideal for Ólafur Kárason, the poor, scorned, unhappy poet-hero of Halldór Laxness’ novel ‘The Light Of The World’ (“Heimsljós”). In the book’s most famous scene, Ólafur Kárason makes a kind of pilgrimage to Breiðfjörð’s grave, a simple, rugged stone with a harp on it. Ólafur decides that the five strings on the harp represent joy, sorrow, fortitude, love and death—in the name of all poor poets who have ever lived in Iceland.
Many aspiring poets have since sat on this grave—often with a bottle in hand.
There are many other interesting places in the garden. Some of the graves are in disrepair, but others are well taken care of. In some places the trees are so dense that sunshine doesn’t reach the ground—other parts of it are brighter and sunnier. My great grandfather probably lies there somewhere. He was a rather lowly farmer in Borgarfjörður, in the west of Iceland. He took ill and finally rode to Reykjavík to seek cure. There he promptly died and from what I have been told he was buried in the Old Cemetery. But nobody seems to know where.  There is no stone or cross on his grave.
As early as in the 1940s, the cemetery was becoming fully occupied, so a new one was marked out in Fossvogur, on the eastern slopes of Öskjuhlíð hill behind The Pearl. It is also quite a beautiful garden, even if it lacks the mystery of the Old Cemetery. There you will for example find the graves of British, American and Canadian soldiers who died in and around Iceland during World War II.
The Old Cemetery also has a memorial dedicated to a battle that was just as ferocious and deadly. This is the stone erected for the French fishermen who came on their ships to the waters around Iceland during the 19th century and into the 20th. It is said that as many as four thousand of them perished. Their ships were small, they were poorly shod and clad—but in comparison to the dirt poor Icelanders even these sailors had desirable things like wine, brandy and biscuits. Writer Þórbergur Þórðarsson, who grew up by the great, desolate, sands in the southeast of Iceland, describes what a feast it was when a French ship stranded near his home. This includes a comic description of Icelandic farmers drinking French wine during a wedding—but of course the reality of these fisheries was deadly serious.
Many of the fishermen started working on the so called “golettes” when they were just little boys. Mothers and wives waited for them in the towns on the coast of Brittany during their long voyages to Iceland, usually starting in late winter, returning in autumn. The French built hospitals for their fishermen in Iceland, for example the French hospital in Reykjavík, which stands in a street aptly called Frakkastígur (“French Street”). They even wanted to found a French factory town in the Westfjords of Iceland in 1860, but their plans were met with fierce resistance. In that period Iceland still had quasi-serfdom and the affluent farmers were suspicious of towns forming by the seaside where there were more opportunities, more freedom.
The memorial stone to the French fishermen stands almost in the middle of the Old Cemetery. It is a dignified place. The inscription comes from an old novel, which was very famous in its time, ‘Pêcheur d’Islande’ by Pierre Loti:
“Il ne revint jamais. Une nuit d’août, là-bas, au large de la sombre Islande, au milieu d’un grand bruit de fureur, avaient été célébrées ses noces avec la mer.”
(“He never came back. One August night, in a great storm by the dark Iceland, his marriage with the sea was celebrated.”)

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