Hólavallagarður Cemetery | Reykjavik, Iceland


After checking out some of the spots Reykjavik had to offer, I went looking for the city’s legendary Hólavallagarður Cemetery. When I got there, it was pretty late at night, but since it was the dead of summer, the sun was up about 23 hours every day. It made me think of “Cemetery Gates” by The Smiths: “A dreaded sunny day, so I’ll meet you at the cemetery gates”.

Now, I love a good cemetery, and this one stands out amongst all those I’ve visited. In fact, it was voted one of Europe’s loveliest cemeteries. But it’s not just the beauty that makes this graveyard spectacular; it’s also the history. You may be thinking, “Okay, Nena, we know you’re a history nerd”, but it’s really interesting! Hear me out.

This cemetery was built in 1838, and the first person to be buried there was a woman named Guðrún Oddsdóttir. At the time, Icelandic folklore taught that the first person to be buried would serve as that cemetery’s guardian for all time. Their flesh would not rot, and it would be their duty to look after all of the people who were to be buried there in future.

The beautiful bell tower

Another thing that makes this cemetery so unique, is the fact that it was built with a limited number of plots. During the 1800’s in Europe, it was very common to add a new layer of earth over the graves when a cemetery had reached its capacity. Instead of building more cemeteries, they would simply bury the old ones, literally stacking the deceased on top of older graves. The reason I love cemeteries is for their historical value, so naturally, this tradition is incredibly depressing to me.

There is an old proverb that states that every man dies twice: once when they take their last breath, and a second time the last time their name is spoken on earth. How sad it would be to be completely forgotten; to literally have your remains covered up by another person’s remains. Thankfully, the Icelandic people of the Victorian-era decided against this method. Occasionally, people are still buried here. There are only a few remaining reserved plots in Hólavallagarður cemetery, but it is possible to have your urn buried in the same plot as the coffin of an ancestor. The people of Reykjavik have built several other cemeteries for its current residents.

You could get lost walking through the graves… and I did. This cemetery is fairly large, and it is hard to look for any distinguishing landmarks through the thick trees. But sometimes getting lost is the best way to truly experience the place you are visiting.

I love cemeteries that have a variety of unique headstones, and this one holds the most impressive collection I’ve ever seen.

I also love the vibrance of this cemetery. It may be a resting place for the dead, but there is nothing morbid about it. So many of the graves have been decorated and adorned, and it is so heartwarming to see the care that has gone into preserving the graves.

Sadly, as in any cemetery, not all of them have been maintained over the years.

My favorite thing about cemeteries is finding people who lived and died during the time periods I’m most interested in. Is that weird?

As I reached the Northern edge of the cemetery, I could see the vibrant colors of the city through the dark canopy of trees.

I love the people of Iceland. Not only for their refreshing friendliness, but for their preservation of history. As stated by Björn Th. Björnsson in his book, Minningarmörk í Hólavallagarði, this cemetery is the largest and oldest museum in Reykjavik, and I would add that it is also the most beautiful.

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