Hólavellir Cemetery – Reykjavík under ground

They are there in most villages, towns and cities: the picturesque and almost alluring graveyards. Some are even charming. Such a graveyard is the old Reykjavík cemetery at Hólavellir between the lake Tjörnin and the West Town.

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According to Michel Foucault’s theory of Heterotopias every society needs spaces and places to contain that with is considered to be outside the norm.

Just like mental institutions, boarding schools and prisons graveyards function as such spaces for the neccesary alternatives needed in order to uphold normativity. Taboos transitions and alternative temporalities are safely housed in the heterotopic spaces. Even a cinema can be characterized as such a space where the rules of everyday life are turned upside down. There we allow our selves to engage with distant places, people and historical times.

It is an key point in Foucault’s theory that heterotopias have important functions in our dominating social structure. They may even be used as a mirror of what cannot be contained within the walls of “normal” and yet the connection between mainstream society and the heterotopia is often strong. This is also the case with cemeteries where we are confronted with the fact (in some cultures taboo) that all lives come to an end. At the same time everyone has relatives in a cemetery and ever since the times when bodily remains were given importance that is where we have been going to pay our respects and commemorate. At Hólavellir the cemetery has even become a recreational space for Reykjavikians and tourists alike.

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Cemeteries or burial sites have presumably always existed, but their placement in relation to the areas of the living has changed in modern times. Until the end of the 1700s European cemeteries were primarily in the town center organized in a circular hierarchical order where the most powerful were buried inside the chapel or temple. The old Reykjavík cemetery used to be at Fógetagarðurinn in the very center of the city (close to Ingólfstorg). As it became overcrowded and cemeteries became associated with illness and danger all over Europa a new grave yard was opened at the outskirts of the town – whereby death and thereby the cemetery was removed form the living.

“After they were moved: The cemeteries then came to constitute, no longer the sacred and immortal heart of the city, but “the other city,” where each family possesses its dark resting place.” ( Foucault 1984 p.25)

The placement of the new cemetery can be seen on this map from 1876 (square field in the bottom):

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(Source from the howlandiceland blog.)

The cemetery expanded well into the 20th century, but most of these images are taken in the irregular and packed 1869-1905 areas.

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The alternative temporality of the heterotopias has for long been one of the fascinating elements about cemeteries and to me Hólavallagardur brings forth associations with early romantic poetry.

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Poets from the Graveyard School in Great Britain and other Romantic movements interpreted the complexity of our relationship with death, decay and a possible afterlife. The space of the cemetery (via Latin from Greek: “put to sleep”) signified a liminal sphere where people were believed to wait for eternal life.

The afterlife og cultural saints

Alongside other symbols and images works by Danish-Icelandic sculptor Albert Bertel Thorvaldsen (1770-1844) can be seen on a number of tomb stones. One of them is the allegorical image Night.

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Besides the many small tableaus by Thorvaldsen there are traces of other key figures in Icelandic cultural history at Hólavellir since a number of them are buried here. Graves and tomb stones are in these cases not only private markers of commemoration for friends and family but national memorial sites. Literary historian Jon Karl Helgason has recently published a book on the spatial commemoration of Icelandic cultural saints.

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Illustrator, poet and scientist Benedikt Gröndal 1826-1907 and painter Jóhannes S. Kjarval 1885-1972 are two of the Icelandic so-called “cultural saints” burried here.

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The cemetery is full of other interesting sites and stories. A guided tour with Sólveig Ólafsdóttir and Heimir Janusarson or one of Reykjavík’s ghost walks are greatly recommended for those who are fascinated or curious about “the other city of Reykjavík”.

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