Spending a year in Trondheim's cemeteries
Ana Cassigneul is a French yoga teacher and a science & communication enthusiast. She reflects on her unique first encounter with Trondheim; through the city’s cemeteries.
“Ok... so we have only one position that would fit you. It’s being blomsterdame at the cemetery, do you want it?”
When the woman at the temp agency told me this, I didn’t quite understand what she meant as this was my first interview in Norwegian. But I understood enough to know I had to take it. Finding your first job in Norway is no easy task, so I immediately said “yes” with a big smile.
Two months after the interview, I found myself standing in the middle of an unknown cemetery with heavy safety shoes on my feet, gardening gloves on my hands, and a confused look on my face as I tried to find my way around. Blomsterdame literally means ‘flower lady’ and my main task was to take care of the flowers planted on behalf of the families or relatives who paid for the service.
During my first days as a blomsterdame, I noticed how different Norwegian cemeteries were from the ones I knew before. In Norway, they are very green and full of life with trees and grass, and tombstones are simple and often have planted flowers. You feel connected to nature when you visit, which I hadn’t experienced in French cemeteries, as the ones I knew had bigger monuments made of stone and gravel-covered ground.
After planting flowers, my duties were to water them, remove weeds and wilted flowers, and mow the grass around tombstones. Every week, I visited the same gravestones and through this soothing repetition, I began to reflect on what I saw around me.
Above the ground, I saw the flowers blossoming, the grass growing faster as the amount of daylight increased, and the bees foraging. I saw earthworms, beetles, and mischievous birds. I saw people walking their dogs, cycling to work, coming back from school, and walking their children in strollers.
I also saw a widow basking peacefully in the sun for an afternoon, sitting next to her husband’s grave. A grown daughter visited her father’s final resting place while a young family with a toddler stood by their lost child’s tombstone. A widower listened to audiobooks on his favourite bench, close to his wife’s ashes.
As I worked, my attention was often drawn to the tokens of love displayed on the graves. Drawings, candles, small figurines, and hearts made of Perler beads. I also travelled to the past during my flower rounds. Norway's history is marked by the second world war and this is visible in monuments raised in memory of Jewish people who were killed, or those honouring soldiers who died in action or in prison in Norway. Some were from countries that now have other names, and as I swept the monuments, I wondered if their families know they were here in Trondheim.
The sadness of loss, the tenderness of remembrance, and the darkness of history were present in every cemetery I worked. But so was the presence of life moving forward, through the rhythm of nature and the cadence of people’s daily activities.
My mind also travelled underneath the surface, to people’s last resting place. I thought of the ground as nothing but silence — but that soon changed. I heard the water of rain running down through the earth. I distinguished the caress of tree flowers and pollen blown by the wind across the ground. I heard the soft hops of birds, their incessant dance, and songs, together with the hurried strides of squirrels and deer.
In the summertime, I saw the marks of bird pecks in the pine cones that had fallen on the ground. I felt the sound of thousands of mushroom hyphae browsing the soil to finally show their fruits above the surface. Some were edible and picked by people passing by, while others huddled around their favourite tombstones and trees.
In autumn, a blanket of pine needles and dead leaves began to form, protecting the earth from heavy raindrops. Then comes the white expanse of snow, muffling the sounds and ushering in a time of rest. The silence I imagined is finally there, in the wintertime. I used to think of the silence of death as scary, but what I perceived from above and below the ground led me to the same conclusion. In a cemetery, even if silence reigns, one is not alone, life is all around, particularly in the kind sweetness of memory.
My own choices for the afterlife are not fixed, but I find comfort in having a gravestone or a dedicated place in nature. Then, I know I might be the object of a thought or a wish passing in the mind of visitors that I never got to know, because of my name, because of my birth or death date that brings a memory in them.
This article first appeared in print in The List Winter issue 2022.