The most unusual aspect of the little cemetery tucked away off a grid road in the Vatnabyggð area of Saskatchewan is not immediately obvious.
However, in the Icelandic Holar Cemetery, where, in 1945, the committee members fought bitterly against the idea of holding sessions in English rather than Icelandic, there is only one Icelandic headstone inscription.Jon J. Stefansson (July 24, 1865 – March 24, 1934) is remembered completely in the Icelandic language.
His simple inscription, translated, reads “In memory of.” By contrast, when the headstone was designed for Johann Borgford, who was buried at Holar in 1910, these words were carved in English:
“No pain or grief/no anxious fear/can reach the peaceful/sleeper here.” The old cemetery is still active, the final resting place of at least three generations of local Icelandic families.
It is tended by volunteers who gather at least once a year – more, in this year of the unceasing rain – to mow the grass, clip the edges, sweep the graves, and re-arrange bouquets of artificial flowers. This year, in honour of the 100th anniversary, 17 members, another three generations, gathered beside the tombstones after the work was done to share coffee, anniversary cake and ice cream.Information about the cemetery is easy to find.
The record-keeping, from the beginning, was meticulous. Names, date of death, cause of death, are all recorded. The original minutes, in Icelandic until 1946, have been translated by Bina Stefanson Fraser.
Although Holar is known as an Icelandic cemetery, there are a few non-Icelanders buried there – at least three babies, and “an Irish settler, name unknown,” buried in early April, 1910. The family of one of the babies, little Mary Helen Marincl, served on the cemetery committee, something no woman was allowed to do until Helen Helgason cracked the gender barrier in 1989.
That was also the year the committee made a decision that could be a model for all out-of-the-way rural cemeteries. They created a grave’s map. The idea had long been discussed. In 1933, John Hallson suggested that the secretary make a map of the cemetery and mark on it the names of the people buried there. Six years later, Helgi Eyolfson said that graves should be better marked so visitors could find the plots. In 1965, there was discussion about determining who was buried in the unmarked graves. Finally, in 1989, Harold Torfason asked for a register at the gate, and it was built.
It’s a plywood frame set on posts. Copies of historical documents and a hand-printed list of the graves with matching key, on paper, are protected by plexiglass. Any plot can be found almost instantly, a gift to visitors when there might be nobody within miles to ask. The first plexiglass yellowed and had to be replaced. The lettering, which was done by hand by Helen Helgason, also had to be redone. “We didn’t think to use light-resistant ink