As Cemeteries Fill, Reykjavík Residents Choose Cremation

With few plots available in Fossvogskirkjugarður and Gufuneskirkjugarður, the two cemeteries in the capital still open to the recently departed, an increasing number of Reykjavíkers are electing to be cremated. RÚV reports that continued construction delays on Úlfarsárdalskirkjugarður, a new cemetery long planned for the east side of Reykjavík, is not expected to be ready for use until 2030.

In 2019, Icelandic news outlets projected that Reykjavík residents who died between 2023 and 2025 and wanted to have a coffin burial would have no choice but to be laid to rest in nearby Kópavogur, as all of the plots in Fossvogur and Gufunes Cemeteries would be filled. At the time, it was said that the new cemetery wouldn’t be ready for use until 2025 at the earliest. Projections have now extended that date another five years.

See Also: Nondenominational Crematorium and Memory Garden to Open in Cpaital Area (Oct 2021)

Thus far, however, no Reykjavíker has had to relocate to Kópavogur in death. Ingvar Stefánsson, Managing Director of Reykjavík Cemeteries, says that this is due to the fact that an increasing number of people are opting for cremations. As such, there are still free grave plots available in Gufuneskirkjugarður. There are still columbarium niches available in both Fossvogur and Gufunes cemeteries.

“Gufunes Cemetery was supposed to be fully utilized by now, but will probably be full around 2030,” says Kári Aðalsteinsson, the horticultural director of Reykjavík Cemeteries. “We also have Kópavogur Cemetery and, of course, we have space there, and presumably will until Úlfarsárdalur Cemetery is ready.”

‘A work in progress’

Although current projections slate Úlfarsárdalur Cemetery to be ready for its first burials in 2030, budget cuts announced by the City of Reykjavík may delay the project even further. The cemetery is jointly funded by the municipalities of Reykjavík, Seltjarnarnes, and Kópavogur, but the majority of the cost is to be covered by Reykjavík.

Rúnar Gísli Valdimarsson, a civil engineer with the City of Reykjavík, says he believes it will be another three or four years before the park at Úlfarsárdalur is filled in with soil. After that, he says, there will still be a lot of work that needs to be done before the cemetery can be put into use. So he thinks the 2030 projection is accurate. “It’s kind of a work in progress, as one says.”

Nondenominational Crematorium and Memory Garden to Open in Capital Area

site for crematorium, garðabær

Tré lífsins (‘Tree of Life’), a private organization that seeks to provide alternative, nondenominational, and environmentally friendly end-of-life services will be opening a crematorium and ‘Memory Garden’ in the capital-area municipality of Garðabær, RÚV reports. Founder Sigríður Bylgja Sigurjónsdóttir says that now that permits have been approved, fundraising for the project is the next major step. She hopes that the crematorium and funeral facilities will be up and running within three years.

As part of its efforts to get the project approved by local authorities, Tré lífsins has resurrected the Icelandic Cremation Association, which previously operated from 1934-1964. The association established a crematorium in Fossvogur at the time, and Tré lífsins had hoped to take over that facility. It was not equipped with any emissions control equipment, however, and negotiations had stalled. In the end, it was simply easier to apply for an entirely new facility to be built.

“We’ve experienced a great deal of good will toward the project and felt that the need for this is significant,” remarked Sigríður, who says that 50% of Icelanders are opting for cremation in lieu of traditional burials these days. She adds that she expects that the number of cremations will increase in Iceland in the coming years.

Services at Tré lífsins will be available to individuals regardless of their religious beliefs or views. Sigríður says there is a great need for spaces that are open to everyone for various activities in times of happiness or grief.

“So for people who maybe don’t want to have a traditional ceremony in a church or something else that is available, we want to have options. But of course, also for everyone, regardless of whether people are Christian, pagan, or anything else.”

Per the Tré lífsins website, services will be restricted at the beginning to those with Icelandic citizenship or permanent residence. The Memory Garden will stand in lieu of a traditional cemetery: “After the cremation people can choose to plant their ashes with a tree in a Memory Garden where the tree will grow up as a living memory of a loved one.”

Demand for Ash Scattering on the Rise

Applications for ash scattering in Iceland have increased substantially in recent years. The District Magistrate’s Office received 50 applications in 2018. Close to half of the applicants were foreign citizens who do not permanently reside in Iceland, RÚV reports.

There’s an ever-increasing number of people who choose to burn their earthly remains once they have passed away. The same is also true of relatives who wish to scatter the ashes of the deceased. People have applied to scatter ashes in beautiful locations such as Reynisfjara, Gullfoss, and Skógafoss, to name a few. However, the scattering of ashes is prohibited in these places. Halldór Þormar Halldórsson, from the District Magistrate in North-East Iceland in Siglufjörður, explains that certain criteria have to be met.

“It’s evaluated in each case, but it’s preferable to head to mountainous areas without people. The law states that it is expected that ashes should not be scattered close to populated areas. It has been interpreted that it is therefore permitted to scatter ashes at sea and in uninhabited areas, in places where there is no traffic, far away from populated areas.”, Halldór stated in an interview with RÚV.

The increased of travellers heading to Iceland in recent years has led to an increased interest in scattering ashes in Icelandic nature. “We’ve heard many different explanations. People have visited the country, or seen pictures of the Northern Lights who are excited by the idea of Iceland. In some cases, it is folks who have visited Iceland as travellers, either the deceased or his close relatives. It’s mainly folks from the United States, Germany, France, the United Kingdom, as well as a little from the Netherlands, who are interested in it,” Halldór said.

A sacred resting place in Eyjafjörður?
There have been ideas afoot to established a sacred resting place in the middle of Eyjafjörður fjord, where people have permission to scatter the ashes of their relatives. Halldór believes that the idea needs to be inspected to ensure the laws about scattering ashes are followed. “There’s nothing that bans people from scattering ashes wherever in the sea, as long as it is not within harbour areas. But if we are talking about one specific place where people want to scatter ashes, then people will always to apply for permission for that. I can’t envision a reason to stop people from scattering ash more in a specific place, rather than any other place. However, it is stated in the law that it is forbidden to label or distinguish the place, but it is out on the sea so it could be marked out by GPS coordinates,” Halldór stated.

One Third of Requests to Scatter Ashes Come From Foreigners

Foreigners who don’t live in Iceland make up a third of those who request to have their ashes scattered in the country or in the ocean around it, RÚV reports. Applications for permission to scatter ashes in Iceland have more than doubled from 2013 – 2018.

There have been a total of 158 requests to scatter ashes in the last six years, 53 of which came from individuals with foreign citizenship who did not reside in Iceland while alive. Two applications were rejected in 2013, but no applications have been rejected since. Application numbers have increased fairly steadily, although not entirely consistently: there were 18 applications in 2013, but only 13 in 2015, then 36 in 2017, and 38 in 2018.

These statistics were published in Minister of Justice Sigríður Á. Andersen’s reply to an inquiry from Left-Green MP Andrés Ingi Jónsson about cremations and burials in Iceland. Cremation has become increasingly prevalent in Iceland. Over a quarter of Icelanders who died in 2013 and 2014 were cremated. According to Icelandic law, ashes may be scattered in the sea or over uninhabited land; ashes cannot be scattered in inhabited areas, areas that are likely to be developed for habitation, or lakes. Scattering sites must be well away from main roadways and only on private land if a special permit has been obtained. Ashes may be scattered on mountains, but not near popular hiking trails.

“Each application is evaluated individually and the [scattering area] is examined on a map, if need be,” explained Sigríður in her reply. “Applicants are even asked to provide data on the proposed scattering site and information is obtained from people who are familiar with the area.”