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Funeral and burial place

Cemeteries and burial plots are sacrosanct under the law. No constructions may be built near a cemetery if they produce noise or hustle. The same applies to the operation of institutions or companies.

People of all religious associations and those not belonging to any such associations are legally entitled to a burial plot in the parish where they died or where they were most recently resident, or where their relatives wish to have them buried.

If the departed person did not have a reserved burial place in a cemetery, a new burial place will be allocated to them. It is possible to reserve one or two burial plots at the side of the deceased.

If a burial place has been reserved for the departed, the person with whom it is registered must give written permission that it may be used for a grave. This does not apply if the departed has registered the burial place.

Funeral parlors arrange for the procurement of burial places.

All graves are identified by a numerical mark in the database of gravesites.

In the Fossvogskirkjugardur cemetery there is a special plot for urns containing the ashes of stillborn babies.

Most cemeteries have monuments or memorial plots where the relatives of those who are buried in other places or who are lost and have not been found can hold moments of remembrance for the departed.

Cross – Base – Headstone

The majority of graves are marked with a cross, base or headstone; this applies equally to burial plots and plots for cremation urns.

These are marked with the name of the departed, their date of birth and the date of their death. Many also choose to have words of blessing and religious symbols and/or a simple decoration.

The initial use of crosses or light markings is recommended on the grave in the burial plot while the soil sinks and compacts.

If the relatives wish, the funeral parlours can provide crosses, bases and headstones.

There are many companies in the stone industry that design and produce headstones and other accessories.

Funeral arrangements

Funeral arrangements should be made in accordance with the wishes of the departed, if known, and the necessary decisions should be made in view of those wishes. Funeral services can be held in churches, chapels, private chapels, places of worship for religious associations, private homes and in various other meeting places.

Time and place

There are many things to attend to with respect to a funeral, whether or not the wishes of the departed are known. According to Christian custom, funerals generally take place five to ten days after death. The principal rule is that a funeral shall always be conducted according to the customs of the religious association to which the departed belonged, or in another manner if the departed was not a member of a religious association.

A church ceremony is not mandatory. Funeral services can be held in churches, chapels, private chapels, places of worship for religious associations, private homes and in various other meeting places, all according to the faith, will and wishes of the departed and/or the relatives.

A funeral can be held on any day of the week, depending on the religious association the departed belonged to and provided that the administrators and staff operating the cemetery and burial plot permit the arrangement.

Funeral parlors (funeral homes)

  • Funeral parlors are operated in various locations in Iceland. Their services are for everyone, whether or not they belong to religious associations. They may be contacted at any time of the day or night.

  • Funeral parlours give advice and arrange all aspects of funeral services in consultation with the relatives. Most of these funeral parlours have websites, and many of them also publish brochures with details of their services.

The coffin/burial casket and the wake

The departed are laid to rest in a coffin, and relatives must decide on all the surrounding arrangements in consultation with the undertaker. Funeral parlors can assist the relatives with the choice of coffin and other necessary items. Special rules apply to coffins in the case of a cremation.

At the wake the closest relatives and the friends bid farewell to the departed. The wake generally takes place in a chapel, a private chapel, a hospital chapel, or in a health-institution chapel. In rural areas the staff of medical care establishments, in close co-operation with the relatives, arrange for the preparation of the wake.

The wake for Christians normally takes place two to six days after death. Religious associations differ on whether or when wakes are held for those who are not members of the state church. This also applies to those who are not members of any religious association.

The departed are remembered in a few words spoken by a religious minister, the head of a religious association or a relative. There will be singing, and prayers will be said and music played if requested.

The funeral

A funeral cannot take place unless the district magistrate has issued a confirmation that the office has received the death certificate.

There are two kinds of funerals:

  1. A burial/funeral. When the funeral ceremony has ended the casket is carried to the grave and placed in the ground in a cemetery or in an unconsecrated plot.

  2. Cremation. Following the funeral ceremony, the casket is cremated and the ashes of the departed are placed in an urn, which is either buried in a burial plot for cremation urns, placed into a pre-existing grave, or the ashes are scattered.

When a private funeral takes place, only the closest relatives and friends are present. There is no announcement of death until after the funeral.

Religion and civil funerals

The mores and customs of the relevant religious association of the deceased shall apply. Funerals carried out by the national church take place according to the book of liturgy and the manual of the Icelandic church. Funerals in urban areas and in rural areas are basically similar, in accordance with tradition. A civil funeral takes place without the participation of a religious minister or other representative of the church. If the departed did not belong to any religious association, it is up to the relatives to decide how the ceremony shall be conducted.

A traditional funeral of a Christian individual could, according to the church's manual, proceed in the following manner:

  • Prelude, played on the organ and/or other musical instruments.

  • A prayer.

  • A psalm.

  • Reading from the scriptures.

  • A psalm or live instrumental music.

  • Gospel reading.

  • A psalm or live instrumental music.

  • Eulogy.

  • A psalm, solo singing, solo instrumental music or reading.

  • Prayers.

  • The Lord's Prayer.

  • A psalm or live instrumental music.

  • Commendation - takes place either in the church or in the cemetery.

  • If the commendation takes place in the church, this is followed by a psalm and then a benediction.

  • If the commendation takes place in the cemetery, it will only be followed by a benediction.

  • Postlude and exit.

Burial or cremation

By law, the caskets of all who have deceased must be buried in a marked plot of graves or in a consecrated cemetery. All cemeteries in use are consecrated. The Gufuneskirkjugardur cemetery has plots that are intended for other religious associations, and also an unconsecrated plot intended for those who do not wish to be buried in consecrated earth.

Cremation urns are either buried in a special burial plot in the Fossvogskirkjugardur cemetery, the Gufuneskirkjugardur cemetery or the Kópavogskirkjugardur cemetery, or placed in a pre-existing grave with the permission of the rights holder of the grave.

Homestead burial plots can be found in various places around Iceland and wherever they are in use burials may take place. As a rule, only the family members of homestead burial plot rightsholder will be buried there. The law does not permit the adoption of new homestead burial plots.

The current law permits the dispersal of ashes over the high barren ground in Iceland and over the ocean, although special permission is required from the Ministry of the Interior.

All graves have a protected status for a period of 75 years. This protected status can be extended if requested.

Information regarding cemeteries, burial plots for cremation urns and homestead burial plots can be found on the website of Cemeteries of Reykjavik Deanery.

Burial - funeral

In the case of a burial/funeral service the casket is frequently carried by the relatives and/or friends from the church/house at the end of the funeral ceremony. The casket is carried by six to eight pallbearers.

The casket is placed on the hearse, which leads the funeral procession of relatives and friends, as it makes its way to the cemetery. Anyone is free to accompany the casket to the cemetery unless otherwise specified.

The casket is carried from the hearse by the pallbearers and then lowered into the grave. The minister performs the commendation and says a prayer. Then the relatives and friends bid farewell to the departed. At Christian funerals it is customary to make the sign of the cross over the grave as you file past.

Flowers and wreaths are carried with the casket from the church building and placed alongside the grave while the farewell ceremony in the cemetery is taking place. When the grave has been covered, the flowers and wreaths are placed on top of it.

In the case of burials/funeral services for those who belong to other religious denominations, the mores and customs of the relevant religious association shall be adhered to.

Cremation

In the case of a cremation the casket is not transported into the cemetery after the funeral ceremony, but rather into the Bálstofan crematorium in Fossvogur.

A certificate from a district commissioner of police or district magistrate must be on hand before a cremation takes place. The certificate must be obtained by the funeral parlour or those organising the cremation service. Furthermore, a written declaration by the departed must be available, indicating the decedent's will to have a cremation service, or there must be a confirmed statement from the relatives that they were aware of such intention.

Anyone over the age of 18 may sign a declaration of cremation on the website of the Kirkjugardar Reykjavíkur. The required permits are then obtained and the wish registered with the Bálstofan crematorium.

It is common for several days to pass between the funeral and the cremation service. In accordance with international ethics guidelines for crematoria, relatives are not permitted to be present when the cremation takes place. The relatives decide in consultation with the funeral parlour when the cremation urn is to be buried. This, however, must take place within a period of one year.

The relatives frequently choose to have a minister present at the burial of a cremation urn. The minister will then say a prayer and give a benediction. Whether or not a minister is present, a minister must be informed that a cremation urn is to be buried, so that the minister can make an entry in the church register and send a notice to the National Registry concerning where the ashes have been buried.

In the case of cremation services for those who belonged to other religious associations, the mores and customs of the relevant religious association shall be adhered to.

Other ways

Civil funeral ceremony

A civil funeral ceremony takes place without a minister or other representative from a religious organisation, and religious symbols and rites at the funeral are not necessary.

Churches, chapels and the prayer rooms of the national church are open for civil funeral ceremonies with the prior approval of the parish priest. A civil funeral ceremony may also take place in community centres, other assembly places or private homes.

Farewell ceremony – memorial service

A farewell ceremony is a funeral service that takes place in the Reykjavik area, but where the casket is then transported to another place in Iceland for burial.

Farewell ceremonies are also frequently held in memory of the departed in private homes, work places, assembly halls and church buildings.

A memorial service is held when the departed has been buried far from his or her home country, for instance, in a foreign country, or if the body has not been found.

Atheist funeral

If the departed did not belong to any religious association it is up to the relatives to decide how the ceremony shall be conducted. The deceased is, for instance, transported directly from the mortuary to the cemetery, a burial plot for cremation urns, or for the scattering of the ashes over the barren highland or over the ocean.

The funerals of atheists can also take place in private, followed by a memorial service.

Customs in rural areas

Funeral rites in some rural areas differ from the norms in urban areas. At a home-farewell, the departed is bid farewell in his or her home. The departed is remembered, and psalms are sung before going to church.

Often the burial casket is moved to the church the day before the funeral. One bell is rung while the casket is carried into the church, and lights are lit and kept lit throughout the night.

Sometimes when a casket is transported to a rural area for a funeral, the procession stops at a place with a good view over the local area, or at the farmstead where the departed lived, before continuing to the church.

When the casket is carried from the church to the cemetery, it was a former custom to carry the casket clockwise around the church building. This custom is still active in many places.

The casket is never carried to the left when leaving the church, even if the grave is to the south of the church, but always to the right, to the north, then east, then south.

It is customary in many places, after the casket has been lowered into the grave and commended, for the congregation to return to the church to sing the last psalm or patriotic song.

The ceremony

Generally the relatives contact a religious minister or the head of a religious association directly or, if the departed did not belong to any religious association, they contact a funeral services company (undertakers) and/or a cemetery. Some of the decisions that have to be made are:

  • Where the departed should be laid to rest.

  • The design of the burial casket.

  • Whether it should be a burial service (interment) or a cremation.

  • The date of the wake and of the funeral.

  • Notifications in the media concerning the death and funeral.

  • Who will arrange the funeral and where it will be held.

  • Whether arrangements should be made for an organist and singers, a solo musician or a solo singer to play at the funeral.

  • Whether the funeral should be public or private.

  • Whether a funeral reception should be held and who should make the arrangements.

Music – singing – reading – schedule of psalms.

Both religious and secular music are often played during funeral ceremonies, and there are frequently readings as well. Often the departed has provided instructions or indicated his/her wishes for a certain poem or chapter from a book to be read, for psalms to be sung or for certain pieces of music to be played.

Religious ministers, funeral parlours and heads of religious associations offer assistance with the selection of music and performers if requested. The national church operates on the basic rule that live music should always be used during funeral ceremonies. There are exceptions when CDs are played prior to the ceremony, or due to special circumstances. Musicians and other individuals who might be involved in funeral services:

  • Organist.

  • Solo singer.

  • Choir.

  • Solo musician.

  • Musicians.

  • Reader.

  • CDs.

Order of service

When a funeral has been organised in consultation with a minister, the head of a religious association or the funeral parlour, most relatives choose to have an order of service prepared. The order of service shows which psalms and music will be played, who the performers are, who the minister performing the funeral service is, and even words of thanks and a farewell from the relatives.

The relatives can either have the funeral parlour organise the arrangement and printing of the order of service, or they can organise this themselves.

Flowers and wreaths

It is customary to place a bouquet, floral arrangements or the national flag on the burial casket at funerals. If the commendation takes place in the church, care should be taken that the flag is folded so that it will not touch the soil. The flag is removed from the casket before the casket is lowered into the grave.

It is common for people to send flowers and wreaths to commemorate the departed, and these are arranged beside the casket during the ceremony. Sometimes the relatives choose beforehand not to accept any flowers and wreaths, and instead ask potential givers to make donations to humanitarian associations instead.

The cost and expenses of a funeral and funeral allowance

  • Funeral costs differ according to the arrangements that are selected. The relatives should carefully examine all costs and expenses involved when preparing a funeral.

  • Funeral parlours, staff in nursing homes and health institutions, and parish ministers can all provide information on the cost of various items.

  • Most funeral parlours have a price list for the services they offer. They will also offer to draw up a cost estimate based on the requests they are presented with regarding the funeral. Further information can be obtained from funeral-parlour websites.

  • According to law, the cost of the services of a minister for the wake and the funeral, as well as the cost of digging the grave, are paid by the cemetery administration.

  • If it is evident that the estate of the deceased will not be able to cover the cost and expenses of the funeral, relatives can apply for a funeral allowance from the municipality where they live, subject to certain conditions. Further information on funeral allowances can be found in rules on financial assistance established by the municipality in question.

  • Many trade unions grant funeral allowances for their deceased members, with certain conditions. Further information can be obtained from the unions.

Laws and regulations

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