The Graveyard Custodian

Cat Pleska


If he noticed me, he gave no sign. He crept along the graveyard’s wall, swaying his round head side to side, scanning for movement, I’m sure hopeful. His white fur stood in stark relief against the charcoal-grey stained gravestones. Part of his fur, ginger warm, allowed me to see his muscles rippling as he jumped down to the gravel path. He approached a huge birch tree rising from the middle of a grave. Sitting down delicately at the tree trunk’s base, he cautiously began to climb. Then I saw what he’d spotted: a Blackbird. The bird, out of reach, remained silent, his feathers smoothed, his demeanor serene, as if he knew the cat would never reach him. But suddenly he flapped and he flew, out over the high stone wall that encircles the Holavallagardur Cemetery. I quickly lost sight of him rising through the tree canopy.

My gaze dropped down to Mr. Ginger, who jumped down from the birch’s trunk and then gracefully leapt to the top of a gravestone. He settled on his new perch to survey the grounds and assure himself all was clear.

In terms of Icelandic cemeteries’ age, this one is relatively new, established in 1838, a mile or so from Reykjavik’s City Center. The churchyard cemetery, nearby, had grown full with twenty-five generations of Icelanders. But yet, burials continued in the old churchyard for a while after the latest resting place was prepared. The new cemetery had not yet been consecrated and would not for a while. First, a custodian had to be established.

But not a custodian who was living.

Before people agreed to internment in the new cemetery, someone must be buried there prior to consecration, who then does not lie in peace and who does not decay. Gudrun Oddsdottir, the wife of the magistrate Thordur Jonassen, became the first one interred; she became the custodian who watches for those arriving later. Could it be she soothes new arrivals, who wring their hands, unsure where to go? Does she gently steer them to where they are to lie down and slumber? Perhaps the custodian holds their hand, smiles at them, assures them she will keep a tidy yard and make sure all is quiet so they can hear songbirds.

Standing in this cloistered garden, I imagine her dancing among the graves, her apron flapping in a soft breeze, watch as her hand plucks violets for her hair, or perhaps she’ll lean against a rowan or larch tree, resting, waiting for the next Icelander she will guide. Beyond the high stone walls that are topped with a moss which grows no where else in the world, traffic whizzes by, people stroll up and down the sidewalks chattering of their lives. Yet, inside the walls, where birches grow straight out of the graves, gravestone carvings bear witness to generations of sons and dottirs, the Icelandic souls sleep, sure all is well and taken care of by the custodian.

And her cat.

Cat Pleska is an author, educator, and storyteller. Her memoir, Riding on Comets, was published by WVU Press in 2015. She's currently working on a collection of travel/personal essays about Iceland and Ireland, titled: The I's Have it.