by Greg Roensch
We had a few hours to kill until it was time to catch the ferry. It didn’t make sense to wait at the hotel, so my wife and I checked out and took a last drive around Heimaey, the largest island in the Westman Islands archipelago off the south coast of Iceland.
With a population of roughly 4,500 people, Heimaey is a sleepy island. Most of the residents live in the shadow of Eldfell, a volcano that erupted without warning in the early morning hours of January 23, 1973. As Eldfell spewed fire, ash, and lava, Heimaey’s inhabitants scrambled to the harbor to evacuate the island on fishing boats and other vessels. Little did they know that the volcanic activity would rage for another seven months.
When all was said and done, the eruption destroyed about 400 homes. And when the lava threatened to close off the harbor, people manned firehoses to stop the advancing flow with high-powered blasts of seawater.
Today, Heimaey is a popular tourist destination, with stunning coastal views, black lava rock beaches, puffin breeding grounds, and more. It doesn’t take long to drive around the island, but, like anywhere else, you can stumble upon some interesting sights if you venture off the beaten path. That’s what I was thinking when I pulled our rental car onto a narrow gravel road.
“Um, what are you doing?” asked my wife.
“Let’s see what’s down here.”
“Well, okay, but let’s not go too far from the main road.”
“We’ll turn around if it looks bad,” I assured her.
The narrow road curved down around a bend and opened up on a windblown grassy landscape. I stopped the car where we could look out at Heimaey’s neighboring islands and, in the distance, the large white landmass of Iceland.
“Amazing, right?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said. “Let’s go a little further.”
“Now you’re talking.”
The road became steeper and narrower. The potholes got bigger. Eventually, we arrived at another grassy patch overlooking the sea. While the area offered more spectacular views of the epic Icelandic scenery, what caught my attention was a small tuft of grass topped by three plain white wooden crosses. Who were they for? I wondered. Why weren’t they in Heimaey’s main cemetery?
Earlier in our trip, we’d walked through the town cemetery after visiting a museum dedicated to the Eldfell eruption. In old photos on the museum walls, you can see fire, cinders, and smoke rising in the distance beyond the cemetery’s arched gate. You can also see photos of tombstones and statuary half-buried in gray ash from the eruption. Given its proximity to the volcano, it’s surprising the cemetery wasn’t destroyed altogether. It was as if its phantasmagorical denizens banded together to say, “Destruction, go no further. You shall not pass this way.”
As interesting as the cemetery was—with its jumble of marble and stone tombstones, wooden crosses, and small statues—I was struck by the stark simplicity of the three white crosses. I don’t know how they got here or what or who they were for, but my mind started to wander. Something about the crosses made me imagine what it might have looked like coming across similar markers on a dusty mountain trail in the frontier days of the Old West.
You might have seen such a cross for a young boy struck down by tuberculosis, or a mother who died in childbirth, or a gunslinger beaten to the draw by someone who was a split second faster. After a brief discussion about whether to bury the body or leave it for the vultures, someone would persuade his or her fellow travelers to give the deceased a proper burial.
The gravediggers would rest the body in a shallow pit, remove their hats, bow their heads, and mumble a few solemn words before covering the corpse with dirt, hammering together a makeshift cross, and continuing on their way.
Standing beside the wooden crosses on Heimaey, I also thought about how Iceland is a frontier. Known as the Land of Fire and Ice, it’s a remote country filled with natural wonders and terrain so otherworldly that it once served as training ground for Apollo astronauts preparing to walk on the moon. Heimaey, this small volcanic island off the coast of Iceland, is even more remote. With the sea wind whipping against our faces, it wasn’t hard to imagine what it might have been like for those who first set foot on this rugged outpost in the middle of the North Atlantic.
I would have liked to stay longer, but it was time to drive back into town to catch our ferry.
As the ship pulled away from the harbor, my wife and I stood on the rear deck and looked back at Eldfell, the volcanic mound serving as a constant reminder that it could erupt again at any moment, sending heaps of ash and streams of molten lava down on the town, the harbor, the cemetery—and even on the three white wooden crosses on a small grassy overlook at the end of a narrow gravel road leading nowhere.
Greg Roensch is a writer living in San Francisco. When not writing and editing for work (Six String Communications), he writes short stories, composes quirky pop songs, and likes to travel. You can find out more about him at www.gregroensch.com. You can also follow him on Facebook or Twitter.
About the Death’s Garden project:
For the next year, I’m planning to put a cemetery essay up every Friday. If there is a cemetery that has touched your life, I would love to hear from you, particularly if there is one you visited on vacation — or if you got married in one. The submissions guidelines are here.