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Cemetery at Fossvogur  
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The cemetery at Fossvogur

The cemetery at Fossvogur was consecrated in 1932 and is situated close to central Reykjavík, on the hillside east of Öskjuhlíð and west of Fossvogur - see  Map 24.  The garden is about 28.2 hectares, including the area on the far western side of the garden which was used in 1987.  In mid-1982 all the area inside the garden was used up and new graves were added to the cemetery at Gufunes.  With the additional space available from 1987, there was room for an extra 3,900 graves.  Today there are only reserved resting places left and these are gradually decreasing in number.


Note: It is now possible to bury urns in graves that already have a coffin, with the permission of the licensee.  This has increased in past years.  In this way, a family may share a graveyard.


Icelandic folk beliefs hold that the first person to be buried in a cemetery will be its ‘guardian' and that the body will not rot but serve to watch over those arriving later.  In Fossvogur the ‘guardian' is Gunnar Hinriksson, a weaver, buried there on 2nd September 1932.
The construction of Fossvogur Church
It was a long road till construction of Fossvogur Church was completed. To begin with, some of the most respected doctors of the time wrote about funeral practices and the need to improve them. In particular, they were concerned about sanitation, as well as cost, which often was unacceptably high, and what assistance the public might offer for families preparing funerals.
In 1932, in accordance with law, congregations belonging to the national church in Reykjavík took over management of area cemeteries. Upon discussing matters, the attitude became clear that the construction of a church for funerals, the purchase of a car as hearse and various other equipment could improve conditions and decrease funeral costs.

The parish board of Reykjavík was responsible for cemeteries, along with the board of the evangelical Lutheran congregation which is not state affiliated. Later, in 1940, the parish of the national church in Reykjavík was divided into four separate ones. The board of each congregation began to elect an officer from its own number as a representative on the cemeteries' Board of Directors. Meeting for the first time in 1941, this board's initial task was to find a way to finance the construction of a funeral church.

There were various delays, partly because the city government asked in 1943 to assume management of cemeteries from the church congregations. In a decision on October 30, 1943, the Ministry for Church Affairs declined to permit this, which occasioned the former mayor, Knud Zimsen, to remark, "Finally the officers of the Cemetery Board could feel independent." They decided to hire two architects, Sigurður Guðmundsson and Eiríkur Eiríksson, to make drawings for Fossvogur Church.

The board determined to build a funeral church for the entire group of parishes in the capital area, able to seat 250-300 at a time and connected to a modern, refrigerated mortuary. Cooperation began with a society for cremation (Bálfararfélag Íslands), because everyone agreed on the advantages of having a crematorium adjacent to the church serving funerals for the entire capital area.

Construction proceeded well; on April 25, 1946 (on the holiday called the "first day of summer" in Iceland), the president of the country, Sveinn Björnsson, set the cornerstone, smoothly polished from Icelandic gabbro rock, in the choir of the church building. On July 31, 1948, the church was dedicated by the suffragan Bjarni Jónsson, doctor of theology. Actually, it was not quite finished, but the chairman of the society for cremation, Gunnlaugur Claessen, had died a few days earlier, and people wanted to fulfill his wish "that his funeral take place at the church and that his body be burned in the new crematorium."

From December 12, 1948, Fossvogur Church was open for public use.

In 1989, its interior was renovated according to designs by the brother architects Árni and Sigbjörn Kjartansson. This was a major task requiring many months; on August 26, 1990, the church was rededicated at formal services.

With people sitting in the balcony, Fossvogur Church can seat ca. 350. Besides being well lit, it has proven to have good acoustics. The organ, produced by the Danish firm Starup, has 14 stops. The sculptor Helgi Gíslason designed the altarpiece, signifying the Holy Trinity, and further articles of art in the choir, made of bronze, glass and basalt.

Annexed to the church at Fossvogur, there are also a chapel, house of prayer, mortuary, crematorium and office. The chapel, designed by the architects Ólafur Sigurðsson and Guðmundur Kr. Guðmundsson, was dedicated in 1983 and seats 90; there are prayer services when bodies are laid in the casket as well as funerals. A stained-glass window in the corner adds to the atmosphere, enriching it with special warmth. This piece of art is by the famous artist Leifur Breiðfjörð and is named The Passion (Píslargangan). The chapel organ, which has eight stops, is from the Danish firm Bruno Christensen & Sönner.

Dedicated in 1980, the house of prayer seats fifty; it is used almost exclusively for prayer services as bodies are laid in the casket. Again, stained-glass windows by Leifur Breiðfjörð glorify the building, along with a beautiful five-stop organ built by Björgvin Tómasson, an organ craftsman.

One direct annex to Fossvogur Church is the mortuary, on which considerable renovation and repair were carried out in 1995. Since then there has been room for 70 bodies compared to 35 before, and the space is divided into cabinets for the corpses, each containing two-three levels and with up-to-date refrigeration. A special section of the building is reserved for preparing each corpse and for reception of those close to the deceased.

There is only one crematorium in Iceland and it is at Fossvogur Church. Two furnaces were imported from Iföverken AB, Sweden, each fired by electricity. Masonry in the furnaces has stayed in wonderful condition, though considerable repair is becoming necessary, particularly on one of the two. It appears that they will last for at least twelve years more, though after that they would need renewal.

The number of cremations in 2002, 270, amounted over 13% af all deceased in the country, which would be 25% of the total dying in parishes of the capital city area. Though less than 10% increase in cremations is considered likely for each year, they should become about 400 within ten to fifteen years, making up about 25% of all deaths in Iceland. Confer also the brochure on cremations.

The church office stays open from 8:30 am to 4 pm. Church ushers tend to services in Fossvogur Church, the chapel and the house of prayer, as well as the mortuary and crematorium. For more information, see "Operations."

Monuments and statues
A statue of Christ by Bertel Thorvaldsen attracts the eye when outside the door to Fossvogur Church. This is a bronze replica of the original, which Thorvaldsen created in Rome in 1821 for the choir of Vor Frue Kirke, a church in Copenhagen. The replica was commissioned by the Society for Cremation (Bálfararfélag Íslands) and unveiled on September 27, 1962.
On the plaza in front of Fossvogur Church, there is a monument commemorating aborted foetuses and the stillborn. The artist Borghildur Óskarsdóttir formed it of concrete and ceramic with shining glass symbols, having conceived the idea from a book by the former president of Iceland, Kristján Eldjárn, in which he wrote about excavations in 1954 at the ancient bishopric Skálholt. The inscription comes from Psalm 139: "Thy eyes beheld my unformed substance" (Revised Standard Version; in Icelandic: "Augu þín sáu mig, er ég enn var ómyndað efni"). Those mourners who wish can place flowers or candles on the specially shaped foot of the monument, which was dedicated on October 18, 1994.

What of those mourners whose dear ones rest unfound in a watery grave? The cemetery displays a monument called Waves of Remembrance for Sailors' Day, which the organization for putting on Sailors' Day in Reykjavík and Hafnarfjörður had constructed in 1996 on the west side of Fossvogur Church. Next to it stands the Monument to an Unknown Sailor. On the smooth surfaces of "Waves of Remembrance," which is sawed out of basalt rock and depicts four ocean waves, stand the names of seamen who have drowned and neither been located nor brought to consecrated ground.

It was on Sailors' Day, June 6, 1996, that "Waves of Remembrance" was formally dedicated. The names of twelve seamen who lost their lives on the lighthouse boat Hermóður on February 18, 1959, had already been entered on the monument, along with the names of two who died when MS Pólstjarna ST-33 was lost on December 17, 1977. A free-standing rock by the waves presents a verse from the Old Testament, in Isaiah 43:1: "But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: 'Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.'" (Revised Standard Version; in Icelandic: "Nú segir Drottinn svo, sá er skóp þig: 'Óttast þú eigi, því að ég frelsa þig með nafni, þú ert minn.'")

Friends, relatives and ship owners may ask for the names of seamen to be carved onto the monument. For a fee, the committee for Sailors' Day in Reykjavík and Hafnarfjörður permits listings in accordance with rules for "Waves of Remembrance" which were confirmed on June 18, 1996. This addition to the cemetery clearly answered a deep yearning of all concerned to pay their respect to dear ones lost at sea. In passing, it may be noted that since 1938 a total of 1,330 Icelandic sailors have drowned at sea; 400 of them were never found.

In 1955, a monument by Einar Jónsson was put up for those who died in the crash of Glitfaxi, a plane from the airline Flugfélag Íslands, as it was on its way from the islands Vestmannaeyjar to Reykjavík on January 31, 1951.

There are also special sites for graves of foreigners: the British plot, German plot, Norwegian plot etc.

Viewing gravestones
Since the beginnings of civilization, gravestones of wonderfully varied sorts have been set up, creating today a record of culture far back in time. There is a great flora of gravestones, with a variety of inscriptions, in the cemetery at Fossvogur. The section on viewing gravestones reveals a few examples. It is proper to remind every visitor of paragraphs 16-20 in the "Rules on traffic and activities in the cemeteries of Reykjavík and all their properties," which detail standards for gravestones and care of gravesites at Capital Area Cemeteries, KGRP.
Cemeteries as a source of outdoor recreation
The cemetery at Fossvogur is a natural oasis where one can enjoy the peace and beauty of the outdoors. The variety of trees and bushes and of birds makes this one of the greatest natural paradises in the capital city area. Of course, those wishing to partake of the outdoors on cemetery grounds must keep in mind what place they are visiting. As the first paragraph of the rules on traffic and activities in the cemeteries of Reykjavík states: "Cemeteries are protected areas, where all unnecessary traffic, games and noise are prohibited." Everyone should bear this in mind when coming to the cemetery, because we must show respect for the deceased, along with those who enter the grounds to accompany their loved ones to the grave or want to meditate in peace. On the other hand, does such consideration for others preclude the enjoyment of walking through the grounds and drinking in their beauty? Certainly not; indeed, many prefer to tread such a place, where it is possible to enjoy a quiet environment. In any case, it is our policy in managing Capital Area Cemeteries, KGRP, that they be open to all visitors who show due respect.
Trees and bushes at Capital Area Cemeteries, KGRP
There is little written information available on trees and bushes in Capital Area Cemeteries, KGRP, so that one desiring to find out past developments must largely rely on inferences from the vegetation seen there today, besides old photographs.
In fact, it is possible to view historical developments in the use of trees and bushes in the gardens of Reykjavík by going to just one place: the cemeteries, where changes between periods become evident.

It was not until around 1900 that people began to experiment with planting trees and bushes in capital city gardens, though it was at first on a small scale, since no ongoing plans had been effected in Iceland, despite isolated trials.
We can assume that experiments in gardens were accompanied by efforts to cultivate gravesites at cemeteries.

At the cemetery in the street Suðurgata, along with older parts of the cemetery at Fossvogur, which stem from the first decades of the 20th century, convenient varieties for those times were planted, such as the native rowan, Sorbus aucuparia, and birch, Betula, along with trees from other Nordic countries, probably above all Denmark, including the rowans Sorbus intermedia and x hybrida; the maple, Acer; the elm, Ulmus; the bird cherry, Prunus; and the laburnum, Laburnum.

It is apparent by inspecting some individual trees of the imported species that their first decades of growth were difficult. Often they had come from regions with much warmer climate and longer summers than here; nevertheless, a number of them have grown remarkably as they became older. The main factor is probably increased shelter from other, more tolerant species that were added near them around the middle of the century, along with housing in the vicinity; in addition, trees seem with increased age to withstand various shocks better.

It was not until after 1940-50 that cultivation of trees and bushes began in some earnest; it was then that new species and varieties arrived that grew better, being better adapted to conditions in Iceland, and general interest awakened in the populace for planting trees.

It was also a deciding factor in increasing emphasis on trees and bushes that a head gardener was hired around 1950.

After the cemetery at Fossvogur was added in 1932, birches were to some extent planted as shelter belts around part of the grounds, along with some native rowan. This was at the time when interest in growing trees was first awakening among the Icelandic people, so that one notices considerable difference in the selection of species between the oldest parts of the cemetery and the more recent. Looking at trees and bushes at Fossvogur gives one a fair idea of how their cultivation was changing in Reykjavík in general. At first, birch and native rowan seem to be about all that was familiar, along with a few other species such as maple, elm and the imported rowans Sorbus intermedia and x hybrida. Finally, around 1940-50, general enthusiasm for cultivation in cemeteries appeared, as well as larger, better flourishing species and varieties.

Due to the infamous blizzard in South and West Iceland during April, 1963, many trees died which until then had remained healthy. These effects were also apparent in the cemeteries; above all, spruce trees of the type Picea sitchensis and poplar trees of the type Populus trichocarpa were killed. Many of them had been planted on the grounds, because they had been recently introduced in Iceland and had shown promising growth. It is likely that numerous bushes were also destroyed, as they would have been budding out for spring at that time too.

Lower-growing bushes were uncommon before the middle of the century, though currants, Ribes, and some roses appeared, as well as a few other types.
Flowering bushes were also being tried in domestic gardens, so some of them were surely experimented with in cemeteries too; however, no bushes in the cemeteries survive which seem older than the middle of the 20th century.

In earlier times, people were more concerned about cultivating varieties that would reach high into the air, since they were so rare in the environment.

Nowadays there are many flowering shrubs which have been planted in the cemeteries during the last two or three decades, and the selection becomes continually broader, since new species and varieties have been imported which suit the climate better.

When work started on the cemetery of Gufunes, it was still located far from any of the city, and many pessimists felt it was useless to attempt growing trees to any extent. Right away, however, shelter belts were created through trees tolerant of winds, including birch, species of Salix such as Salix sp., alaxensis, borealis and pentandra, and spruce (Picea sitchensis).

The poplar, Populus trichocarpa, also had a role; on the other hand, people of the time were not aware of the various varieties and clones of poplars, so it was first later proven that properly selected poplars perform well at Gufunes, becoming among the fastest-growing trees there today.

There were of course setbacks. During the earliest years weather caused damage, stripping for instance the bark off some species in vicious storms, "skaraveður," in which ice is lifted off the ground and blown through the air at high speeds.

Certain spots often get covered by high banks of snow, which then weights down the trees, bending or breaking them.

With time, maturing trees from the initial plantings provide more and more shelter, favouring younger vegetation. Today there is a great deal of planting going on at Gufunes, with varied sorts of trees and flowering shrubs.

List of tree and shrub species found in the cemeteries today