Fagrabakka

 

Graveyards, oooohhhhhh, spooky places when I was a kid. The only spookier place was the undertakers. If I had to go past either, I got to the other side of the street or the road, moved quickly and, sometimes, whistled. I’m not sure if dead people are frightened by whistling but it bucked up my courage. Dead people, I believed, didn’t like noise.

One of the problems with graveyards when you are a kid is that that’s where they put dead people and at that age, the people you know about who are dying are close to you. Family, friends. The deaths often untimely, the grief profound. People are in excruciating pain. You pick up their pain. If you don’t,  people tell you to go out and play and be quiet.

Unless there’s a sudden death from an accident, there are the weeks or days leading up to a death. There’s grief in people’s faces, postures, often anger in their voices, tears, despair. They go from being adults in charge to not being in charge of anything. They are helpless in the face of death.

Death is a mystery, arbitrary, unexpected, unfair, often unreal. Sometimes, it is filled with blame. “You should have….”

Later, as I grew older and more people I knew died, death became more familiar.I became used to its rituals. It’s beginning and end became more familiar. I noticed that the living survived. In a day or two, or a week or two, they went back to their daily chores.

In spite of movies where rotting hands rose out of the earth, the graveyard became more less scary .

Gradually, I became more familiar with graveyards, became interested in who had been buried there. They were, I discovered, filled with both information and questions. I discovered that God would not strike me dead if I stepped on a grave. Sometimes, I rode my bike out to visit.

To me, graveyards were sacred places, places deserving of respect and permanence and I was shocked when I heard that graveyards sometimes were dug up, the remains of people moved to somewhere else so the ground could be built on. It didn’t shock me to discover that graveyards were often neglected. Small towns all across the prairies have disappeared, their graveyards tangled with thistle and grass, the headstones tipping or fallen. The houses have fallen to ruin or been moved so there is no one left to care.

That’s why, when my cousin Dilla said that she’d show me a nearly forgotten graveyard, I said yes, let’s go see it. It’s the Fagrabakka graveyard. At first, it was in the wilderness, then on a farm, now, incongruously, in a posh lakeside suburban neighbourhood north of Gimli.

Dilla Narfason, my guide

It’s rescue started many years ago. In 1987 a ceremony dedicating a headstone with the names of those known to buried there was held.

Stefan Stefanson made the Gimli chapter of the Icelandic National League aware of the cemetery’s state and the League and the Rural Municipality of Gimli worked together to restore the cemetery. A Mr. S. Wood who owned the surrounding land, donated the cemetery plot and fence.

Because of Stefan’s involvement, the site became known as an “Acknowledged Pioneer Cemetery”. There are few headstones. The area was isolated, travel was by boat on Lake Winnipeg, people were poor, stones would have had to be brought in from distant places like Selkirk.

Some names of those buried at Fagrabakka were discovered and one person was buried in 1897 and the last was in 1954.

At the time of the dedication, Guðny {Gwen) Cronshaw was able to provide information as she’d lived near the original farm called Geiröstodum. The area is now called Lake Forest Farm. A rose granite stone was unveiled by Olla Stefanson and Gladys Harris (nee Thorkelsson).

The visit to Fagrabakka was worth the drive and the walk. The cemetery plot in the forest is pleasant. There’s no need to whistle to keep the ghosts away. Those that are still around will be glad of the company. If you go on a nice day, take a book of favorite poems with you and read them in silence or aloud. The early settlers were poets. In spite of tremendous hardship, they found time to write and read poetry and share poetry. It’s not a bad thing to share some poetry with them.

Where you walk, where you sit, where you stand, your ancestors walked, sat and stood, in much harder circumstances, a long way from their homes in Iceland.

(With information provided by Dilla Narfason, any errors or omissions are mine.)