“Where the Birch Grows: A Moment in the Garden of the Dead” By Cat Pleska

Let the moss grow on my grave
Lichen crack the stone
Tree roots pierce down in my heart
And the bugs live on my bones
Once my soul done left the earth
There’ll be nothing left to save
Let the flowers bloom all across my tomb
And the moss grow on my grave


The graveyard’s high walls stymied me. I could not see anything above them but tree canopies. Black birds cackled from the top branches. Then against the hovering grey sky that broods over Reykjavik, Iceland, a flock of dark silhouettes flushed up and out, like escaping souls.

I circled the walls on the surrounding sidewalks. Locked gates frustrated my entry until the last one I came to opened. It was marked “Maintenance,” which surprised me as I found few signs in English. It creaked like a graveyard’s iron gate should.

Once inside, Hólavallagardður Graveyard appeared as an OZ landscape, with neat rows of graves bisected by mulched lanes. The curved tree canopy reminded me of when Dorothy and the Scarecrow stumbled into the ominous forest, where they discovered the Tin Man.

A huge wooden sign, this one in Icelandic and English, translated the Icelandic graveyard name to mean “garden on a hill.” The sign explained the history: it was consecrated in 1848 and listed a few distinguished Reykjavik residents interred.  Burial closed to new families after 1948 because it had filled. Only the descendants of those families can be buried there.

I strolled down the first avenue of graves, my attention focused on the plentiful birch, rowan and larch trees. I had read the birch tree was native to Iceland. A check of the geology history revealed that 30 million years ago Iceland was not only green but also tropical. The indigenous peoples inhabited Iceland before the arrival of Vikings around 900 CE. When the sea-going Norsemen arrived, 30 percent of the island was covered in the mottled, white-barked birch trees. They needed wood for homes and fire wood, and the island was denuded in no time. Volcanic Iceland, with its underbelly broiling with magma, has a natural source of heat and electricity provided geo-thermally. So, perhaps the trees weren’t an urgent issue long ago, but the impetus to replant and nurture forests again is a national drive.

But here, in this storied graveyard in the capital of Iceland, the inhabitants enjoyed their own little forested space, with large rectangular headstones. Most were fenced within a low wall of larger stones, which I gathered were family plots, even though the names varied. Women’s last names were a combination of their father’s first name, followed by dottir, such as Olga Olafsdottir. The men were named for the father’s first name as well, but followed by son, such asSven Olafson. Sitting down on a nearby low wall, I read one tombstone engraved with the name Ingrid Helgasdottir, and in this case a child has a name combined with the first name of her mother followed by dottir. Delightfully confusing to us Americans, I found the names beautiful.

I listened for the return of the black birds. And they came, in a loosely knit flock, landing among the tree branches. One then announced itself as I heard it grackle from directly above. It seemed agitated. I looked around to see what was causing its excitement, and I spotted a ginger cat perched on a nearby gravestone. I’d read that Icelanders like cats, which made me happy as I’m a cat person, but I did wonder what toll the cats might take on the bird population. I also knew the cats were well fed, probably by everyone, so perhaps that full belly lessened the cats’ desire to impact the birds. Wishful thinking, I’m sure.

Looking down, I watched a clump of small purple, pansy-like flowers fluttering in the breeze. It was so preternaturally quiet in the graveyard once the blackbirds calmed down. It was then I noticed a number of the trees grew directly from the graves. I supposed the deceased were below it, meaning the bodies would be anchored by root tendrils curling around ears and growing into hands. No cemeteries I had ever seen at home had trees growing up out of the middle of the grave—at least, not on purpose. And in the US, the deceased are not only encased in caskets, but also in a steel vault. A tree’s efforts to reach us would be thoroughly thwarted.

In reading about Iceland’s graveyards, I learned Icelanders rarely embalm their deceased. If travelers to Iceland happen to pass away while there, getting them to a hospital and embalmed for the trip home can be difficult, warns the US Embassy.

Prior to the Vikings adopting Christianity and burial customs, they burned their deceased in a funeral pyre. Cremation has returned as a custom in Iceland and is common. All the more likely that a tree’s roots would reach its human companion’s ashes below, nourished by the remains’ minerals and nutrients.

Scientists know that the basic properties of energy never dissipate; they transfer into something else: If I were put in the ground upon my death, I rather like the idea that what remains of my energy, my mass, would be transferred into one of the most beautiful living things ever to grace this planet—a tree. The minerals of my decaying body would enrich the soil, which in turn, would provide the roots with food, which flavor the sap, rising up the trunk, into limbs, and out to leaves. Perhaps I will ensoul my tree, and I will again feel the breezes, the sun and rain.

Moving on to the path again, I noted hardy yellow flowers, bird feeders hung here and there, and  then rounding at the end of one lane to step onto the next, I spotted a family kneeling near a grave, pulling weeds. Beside the woman were pots of colorful annuals.

I stepped closer to the outer wall to examine a mossy matt hugging the top tightly. I’d read this kind of moss grows nowhere else on earth. I dug out my camera from my backpack and adjusted it so that I could take photos at the micro-level. I trained my lens onto the Lilliputian moss forest to snap photos of spikes reaching upward. The spores looked like spoons, slender stalks rising to a shovel-shape at the top, tapering off to a point. The singularity of this species reverberated through my mind. The only one of its kind and here I was taking a photo of it. It made me wonder about the mosses in my yard, of which I’m inordinately fond. When I was a child, I thought moss was velvet, like the fabric of an expensive gown that only fairies wore.

Again, I admired more carved gravestones and sheltering trees. I stopped to observe the stout trunk of a birch. I regretted that where I have always lived in West Virginia birch is not common. Mostly it’s planted by landscapers and homeowners who appreciate the tree’s elegance and make it a showcase plant in their yards, but it’s probably too warm to grow any substantial numbers of cold-loving birch.

The etymology of birch is from the Proto-European root word bʰreh₁ǵ, which means to shine. Other similar words from Old English and German reference the tree’s bark, such as bierce and Birke. Clearly the tree impresses humans with its light bark, and I have seen photos that show the birch as glowing in the woods. A strong hardwood that is fine for furniture, it frustrates those who would work it with hand tools. Its versatility, however, is impressive as it’s used for soap, shampoo, flavoring, glue, teas, and canoe skins, and is also used in religious ceremonies and for birching—a form of flogging.

Yet, delightfully, its sap is used for birch syrup. If you soak birch bark in warm water, it can be used in a pinch to set a broken limb. If you’re lost in a birch forest, peel off some bark and eat it—it’s safe.  Given the tree’s usefulness, I could understand the movement to nurture more birch forests.


When I was a younger, I had more time. Before the harried responsibilities of life, I took up embroidery. I purchased kits that came with a pre-stamped canvas, yarn, needle, and instructions. The first image I ever embroidered was of a lone birch tree, tall against a blue sky and rising from green grass, its leaves yellowed and drifting to the ground from what I imagined was a warm fall breeze. The scene was so serene, I felt its peace transfer even as I stitched it, and when I finished, I framed it and hung it where I could see it every day. From this little action, my love of birch trees grew.


In a garden on a hill, I remembered the feel of the embroidery needle, my steady hand stitching a vibrant scene onto cloth. Now, I’ve exchanged needle and yarn for keyboard and computer, job duties and demands, sore hands and a troubled mind. The thought took root: I wanted to re-learn balance for myself.

A balance the dead, the cats and the birds all know, where the birch grows.

Cat Pleska is an author, editor, educator, publisher, and storyteller. She often leads writing workshops in the community and is an essayist for West Virginia Public Radio, and a book reviewer for West Virginia University Press. Visit her at www.catpleska.com