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School district returns control of Bingham cemetery to 'its rightful owners'

COPPERTON — In the still of a late spring morning, a dutiful son crouches at his father's grave at Bingham City Cemetery to pull weeds and otherwise tidy up the ground.

This has been Curtis Larsen's ritual since his father, Evan, died 15 years ago. The week before Memorial Day, on his dad's birthday and other special occasions, he visits his grave "to come clean it up and say hello."

His mother has lived in Bingham Canyon her entire life. It meant a lot to her to bury her husband nearby, he said.

"I'm sure he would have liked it here. You get the deer coming through here. He was really into nature," Larsen said.

Since November 1972, the cemetery, which has headstones that date back to the 1870s, has been owned and maintained by the Jordan School District.

For more than four decades, the school district has groomed the grounds, sold plots and opened and closed graves for burials — responsibilities most school districts aren't tasked to deal with.

This coming week, those responsibilities will shift to the newly created Copperton Metro Township and the Greater Salt Lake Municipal Services District. At a recent meeting, the Jordan Board of Education approved a resolution at the request of the township leaders that shifts the cemetery and escrow account to Copperton. Next week, the township council will vote on the agreement.

"To have it return to its rightful owner, it's bittersweet, but it's much more sweet for the township and their community," said Paul Bergera, a Jordan School District administrator who for the past four years has also served as cemetery sexton.

For Tessa Stitzer, who was elected to the inaugural Copperton Metro Township Council in 2016, annexing the cemetery has been a priority for the community.

She, too, has lived in the area her entire life. Her great-great-grandparents are buried at the cemetery, as are her great-grandparents.

"There's all sorts of graves here that in some ways, when you come from a small town, you're all related. That was another big reason we wanted to see the cemetery back in Copperton — the history, the camaraderie. We want to keep it going," Stitzer said.

The school district acquired the cemetery under a quirk of Utah law. When Bingham Canyon City was dissolved by a vote of its residents in the early 1970s, the cemetery came under control of the school district because it was the area's largest taxing district.

So along with the other responsibilities of the school district's Auxilary Services Department — overseeing construction and maintenance of school buildings, transportation, nutrition services, snow removal, grounds maintenance — it has operated and maintained a cemetery.

A half-dozen district-level administrators have served as its sexton over the years.

Bergera said the school district has been a dutiful steward, but he is quick to credit community members who have also labored to maintain the cemetery and preserve its history.

Each year, on the weekend prior to Memorial Day, the Bingham Canyon Lions Club leads a community cleanup of the cemetery. The school district serves a lunch to volunteers.

The Paul and Lori Jencks family of South Jordan has practically adopted the cemetery, laboring to research burials, mark graves with headstones and conduct genealogy of people buried there.

Their children have performed Eagle Scout and Girl Scout projects related to the cemetery, and led service projects at Bingham High School.

The couple's daughter, Stephanie Jencks, issued a challenge to the school district to build a gazebo and monument at the cemetery. District officials agreed, but said she had to raise $5,000. She raised that much and more.

The Jenckses spend time at the cemetery each Memorial Day weekend assisting cemetery visitors with genealogy. Family members have been instrumental in recording the names of people buried in the cemetery along with the exact location of their graves in a book and on a website.

The cemetery is a mix of people who have died in recent years and people who passed away as early as the 1870s. There was a burial there this past week.

Some graves are marked with modern markers with names, photographs and solar-powered lights. Others have markers that simply say "Unknown Male."

The names of the dead reflect the rich diversity of the immigrants who labored in the nearby copper mines. Some of the graves were repatriated from burial sites at the mines. People from more than 30 countries and 38 states are buried in the Bingham City Cemetery.

Some of the graves are those of infants and small children who died during epidemics of diseases now readily preventable through immunization. Other graves hold the remains of young men who died in mining accidents.

The cemetery also includes the graves of veterans dating back to the Civil War and memorial markers of area police officers made possible by the nonprofit organization Utah Law Enforcement Memorial.

Next week, once the Copperton Township Council acts on the interlocal agreement, it will assume responsibility for the cemetery.

"We have a lot of people in Copperton that are really excited to be part of the cemetery as far as committees to help keep the grounds clean and controlled, working with the Jencks family with the plots and the history, the gravesites and preserving them. People in Copperton are still interested in reserving plots here. It's important," Stitzer said.

Bergera said the school district has thoughtfully cared for the cemetery for more than four decades, but officials believe "handing the baton" to Copperton is akin to returning it to "its rightful owner."

"It's a legacy, that's for sure," he said.