Facebook Twitter



The first to be buried in what is now Salt Lake City Cemetery were the children of George B. and Melissa Wallace. Mary was 18 months old and George Jr. only 3 months old. They died in late summer, 1848, within a month of each other. According to the Great Salt Lake City Record of the Dead, they died of "diarea."

Their parents buried them on a sagebrush-covered hill overlooking the new city that the Saints were building. The Mormons had been in Utah only a year. At first they buried their dead near their fort - where Pioneer Park is now. By the time the Wallace children died, though, families were starting their own cemeteries around the valley.Now, standing in the green and pretty Salt Lake Cemetery and looking at the Wallace family marker, we can only imagine the way the settlers felt about those long ago losses. The Wallaces' grief was sharper, perhaps, for having to bury their babies in such a forlorn place. With no water on the hillside they could not plant a tree, or a rose bush, or even grass to cover the tiny plots.

The Wallace cemetery might have remained just a family plot except that, in 1849, pioneer leaders decided they needed an official cemetery. They were risking the purity of their water supply by leaving burial sites to chance.

George Wallace was on the cemetery committee. He urged the others to choose a site on the hill where his children lay.

From 20 acres and two graves, the Salt Lake City Cemetery grew to 350 acres. There are now 110,000 graves. It's the largest municipally-owned cemetery in the nation.

But more than size sets it apart. To walk through the cemetery is to walk through the history of the Utah Territory.

All cemeteries are sacred places, places to meditate and mourn. At the same time they are historic - a place to wander away an afternoon looking at graves of the famous and infamous, thinking about the lives of people who have been dead for longer than we've been alive. Utah's history of polygamy, mining and migration makes the Salt Lake City Cemetery more interesting than most.

"I'd like to introduce you to a few of my favorite people," said Jeffrey Johnson as he prepared to lead a Utah State Historical Society tour through the city cemetery two weeks ago.

The tour was arranged by Only in Utah, a local conference planning company owned by Evelyn Lee and Pam McQuarrie.

Johnson is an historian and an archivist with Utah state government. He is uniquely able to keep it all straight.

And when you're conducting a tour of the Salt Lake Cemetery, there's a lot to keep straight. Two Chinese and two Japanese sections. A section for paupers and prisoners. Three Jewish cemeteries and a Catholic cemetery adjacent to the city cemetery, now cared for by those congregations.

In the sections where pioneers are buried, polygamy add to the complexity of explaining who belongs to whom. Whether they died in the time when prosecution for polygamy was at its height, or whether it was physically impossible to bury all the members of a huge family together, there are numerous pioneer woman buried a distance from their husbands, buried sometimes under their maidden names, surrounded by their children.

At each headstone, Johnson gave a glimpse of pioneer life: "Amelia Young - She was one of Brigham Young's younger wives who often traveled with him. From the dates on hers headstone you can tell she was a widow for 32 years.

"Here's Thomas Kearns - Catholic, mining magnate, Senator.

"Here's the incense burner used in Buddhist ceremonies.

"Here's Simon Bamberger - Utah's first Jewish governor.

"See the weeping willow on Phoebe Woodruff's stone. This is one of my favorite graves." Johnson explained that her husband, Wilford, couldn't appear at her funeral or he'd have been arrested for polygamy. So on the way to the cemetery, the carriage carrying her body passed by the house where he was hiding, giving him some small chance to say good-bye to his beloved wife.

"How were the five wives of Joseph F. Smith buried?" asked Johnson. "Three on one side of him and two on the other."

"Here is Mary Fielding Smith. Her husband Hyrum Smith was killed in Nauvoo, but she came West anyway." And why is this brave and good woman described as a "relic" on her headstone? "Because relic is the old-fashioned term for widow."

"My job is a two-part job," explains Ben Russo, sexton. "Not only dealing with the people (those who come once a year on Memorial Day and those who have just had someone die and need someone to help them and listen to their grief) but trying to preserve the history and flavor of the cemetery."

Part of its sense of history comes from the upright headstones. Russo says the SLC Cemetery is one of the last in the state to allow those.

He often gives cemetery tours to schools and organizations - on his own time. "The mayor encourages me to do it," he says. "He feels the cemetery is a place where the history of the valley is preserved. After all, most of the old pioneers and all but three of the church leaders are buried there. (Do you know which three? Joseph Smith is buried in Nauvoo, Brigham Young in his family plot and Lorenzo Snow in Cache Valley.)"

Russo's job is also to supervise the grounds crews. "The headstones are the property of the heirs. Salt Lake City isn't responsible for decay or damage," he says.

Johnson and other historians are concerned about the decaying pioneer markers and are looking for ways to restore them. "We've already lost some of my favorites. Like Lorenzo Barnes' who died on mission to England and wanted so much to be buried in Zion that his wife had his body sealed in a metal container and shipped home.

"The whole story was on the marker."

Another important part of the sexton's job is record-keeping. Russo can trace the price of a plot for example from the first days when it was free, to 1865 when the LDS Church gave the cemetery to the city and the city started charging a quarter per plot.

By 1939 they were $25 apiece, which included perpetual care. The price went to $140 in the 60s, to $190 in 70s, and is now $300 for a plot - which includes perpetual care.

And, Russo adds there are still plenty of plots. Some families, such as the Smiths, are still being buried in ground inherited from their pioneer ancestors. There are 2,000 grave sites for sale now and two more sections to be developed which will contain 5,000 more. Russo figures the city won't have to look for cemetery ground for at least 200 more years.

Johnson explained that the early sextons were to give to the governor a record of each death, including cause, and make note of where the person was buried.

Unfortunately, some of the first sextons "didn't have both oars in the water," says Russo. He can understand that though. More dynamic men were out starting new towns. The task of burying people fell to those who were content to bury any number of Chinese under the name "Chinaman." One, we assume, fallen angel was buried as "Bad Woman." "Now I don't care what she did," Russo says, "someone knew her name."

You can tell he relishes some historic inaccuracies, though.

While showing off the Record of the Dead, he says,"Look, she died in child bed. He died of a cough. Oh, here's a great one: The cause of death was `stopped breathing."' He smiles.

He and Johnson both give light-hearted tours. That's perhaps the best part about touring a cemetery. The truly old headstones don't inspire grief, they inspire interest - sometimes even smiles. It's a message to the living, to the grieving. The message is, as Ben Russo says, "Time heals."