Chapter 12

The death boom creates a shortage 

Suddenly it is Sunday, the 20th of April. During the last days I have been busy typing, and even more busy sitting outside in the sun doing nothing but drinking tea and getting a suntan.

            To get a tan is of special importance for me this spring. My countrymen know that I have been hit by cancer. People stop me in the shops and on the streets and ask me ”how are you?” My standard answer is that I am doing fine, that treatment has been successful, and that I am steadily improving.

            One has had cancer, but one does not need to look like a wandering corpse. If I can point at my brown face, it makes it easier for people to understand that I am doing well. I very much want to give them that impression.

            On the NRK radio news at 9 o’clock there is a story about the shortage of graves in Norway. Burial places have become scarce, the churchyards are full, especially in the cities. In the years to come the demand for new tombs will increase by 10 000 a year. This increase could be realtively easily dealt with if it had not been for a particular problem, of which I was not aware. It is the plastic problem. Several hundred thousand graves from the 1950’es and 1960’es still cannot be used for new burials because the bodies put down in those graves were wrapped in plastic. After fifty years those bodies have not become soil, the NRK reporter says, quoting the newspaper Aftenposten (The Evening Mail, which is by the way a morning paper).

            I rush off to the nearest gas station, at Bredsand, ten kilometres away, to buy the Sunday edition of Aftenposten. Sitting behind the steering wheel of my old car, I think about the macabre idea of  wrapping the dead in plastic. Why was that? How come I have never heard about it?  

            Aftenposten has the full story. The dead were wrapped in plastic because this was thought to be a hygienic method of burial. The airtight plastic surrounding not only the dead body, but also the coffin, have conserved the dead bodies. As long as fifty years after the burials they are still more or less intact. In Oslo there are 30 000 tombs with plastic-wrapped bodies. On a national level there are 250 000 to 450 000 such tombs.

            A solution of the problem is to inject slake lime (”lesket kalk”) into the graves to make the bodies decompose. Some graves in Oslo have been treated with slake lime with good results. But The Burial Authority (Gravferdsetaten) lacks money to go on with this work.

            The manager of burials in Oslo, Margaret Eckbo, says that the city is confronted with a grave (sic!) problem.

            Fifteen years from now the death rate will have increased by 10 000 a year. This should not come as a surprise to anyone. It is a result of the baby boom. I am myself a child of the baby boom which started in Norway during the last years of The Second World War and continued in the years following the war. The baby boom, logically, had to lead to a death boom. I have never heard this expression used, but since I am an author I invent expressions, and now I have invented the death boom.

            If I live long enough, I’ll participate in the death boom. Norway is known for the longevity of its population. On an average a male Norwegian should reach 79 years of age.

             Statistically I should become 79, which means I should have 16 more years to go. But perhaps my odds are a bit reduced because of the heart condition and the cancer. On the other hand, I have been well treated and get good medication. We have a saying in Norway that ”ukrutt forgår ikke så lett”, which may be translated into ”weeds don’t die easily”. I hope this applies to me, and that I’ll be around for a while.

            The situation of the overcrowded churchyards have put an increased pressure on people to let themselves be cremated when they die. Cinerary urns demand less space than coffins at the churchyards. A citizen of central Oslo may have to be cremated to get a burial place in the vicinity of where she or he lived, even if the person would have much preferred to be buried as a body in a coffin. For many of our new contrymen cremation is not a possibility because Islam does not permit cremation.

            Manager Eckbo complaints that it is difficult to obtain new territory for churchyards in Oslo. ”People want to be buried close to where they live, but no one wants a churchyard in their neighbourhood.”

              Eckbo says wryly that the dead have no pressure groups to lobby for them.

              I go out under the Blood Tree. There lies the tombstone of my mother and father. It is a slab of unpolished granite on which light green lichen grow. The inscription on the stone reads: Emma Fredy Michelet 1910 – 1972, Johan Fredrik Michelet 1905 – 1984.

             The tombstone used to stand at my parent’s urn grave at the cemetery of Ullern church in western Oslo. One day after the turn of the century I came to visit the grave to pay respect to my parents and plant some flowers.

              The tombstone was gone. 

              I got a profound shock.

             What had happened?

              There was no one at the graveyard who could give me an explanation.

              I knew that I had to pay a fee to keep the grave maintained. I knew that the bill from Ullern perhaps not had been paid by me recently. But I thought that the law said that tombstones could not be pulled down on a graveyard until 20 years after the burial.

             I called the the person in charge of the Ullern churchyard, the churchwarden.

             I said that only 16 years had passed. So why was the tombstone taken away?

             The churchwarden told me that the law had been changed, and that tombstones placed on urn graves could be removed after only 15 years.

             I got mad. I said something about the changes of laws passed in Stortinget that no ordinary citizen gets to hear about.

              I asked where the stone was. Had it been dumped on some rubbish heap?

             I was told that the tombstone was in a warehouse at the churchyard. From there I removed it. I loaded it on the truck body of my pickup.

             I said: ”Goodbye and farewell, Ullern cemetery! I shall have no more to do with you.”

             I drove home and placed the tombstone under the Blood Tree. It is a good place for the stone to be.

             Now a spring flower which we call ”perleblomst”, pearl flower, grows at the tombstone. It has a nice blue colour which my father, who was an artist, a painter, always appreciated very much. So did my mother, who was a physiotherapist.

             I have said that I want my ashes to be placed under the Blood Tree. In my opinion I do not belong on a Christian churchyard. The yard at Rygge church is not meant for me. It is not as crowded as the Oslo yards, but I’ll take up no place there.

             Aftenposten quotes the Norwegian law about burials: ”Burials shall take place in public churchyards. Municipalities are obliged to have vacant graves for at least three percent of the municipality population.”

             I had thought that I my family wold commit a crime when they fullfilled my last wish and placed my urn under the Blood Tree. It is not neccesarily so. The law, ”Gravferdsloven”, according to Aftenposten, states that: ”When special conditions exist, permission may be given for private individuals to make a graveyard in a suitable place for cinerary urns.”

             For me I would say that a special condition exists.

             What, then, if my graveyard under the Blood Tree have to be consecrated by a priest to be considered legal? I would object to that. There still is a possibilty to make the process legal. One can apply for permission to have one’s ashes spread by the wind.

             My ashes spread under the Blood Three by a southerly breeze, that sounds like a lovely – and practical – solution.

             I wrote about my wish to be buried under the Blood Tree in my internet book ”Brev fra de troende”. A man wrote an email to me and said that he would strongly recommend me not to have my urn put down under the tree in our garden. He said that his recommendation had nothing to do with him thinking this was at heathen practise. No, he said it would be foolish because new owners of the house and the garden might want to get rid of the urn, dig it up and throw it away.

             I replied that this was a possible problem that could be postponed to the future.

              I hope that my daughters one day will take over the house, and that they will be happy to have my parent’s tombstone and their fathers urn under the Blood Tree, surrounded by pearl flowers, white anemonas and scillas.

             Of course there may be problems with urns and ashes if they are not properly put into the ground. A friend of mine told me about a friend of his who had not managed to solve the problem of where to place his atheistic father’s urn. He therefore kept the urn in a bookshelf in his appartment besides a small aquarium he had. In the aquarium a lonely goldfish swam.

             The friend of my friend was a harddrinking fellow. One night he sat in his appartment an drank with a pal. When the host had to go to the toilet, his pal found out that the goldfish looked hungry. He mistook the urn for a box of fish fodder and emptied it into the aquarium.

             When my firend’s friend understood what had happened, he finished his drink, carried the aquarium tank down the stairs, walked to a nearby park and dumped the contents of the aquarium – fish and father - on the lawn.

               He often went to the aquarium spot in the park and held commemorative speeches for his father, remembering also to mention the poor goldfish. Speaking made him thirsty, so he celebrated with a beer or two.


       Chapter 11

Chapter 13