I loved cemeteries when I was a kid.
Not just at Halloween. All year round. I loved them for their Creep Factor. Kids I knew used to visit the Mapleton Cemetery in the middle of the night to visit "Reggie’s Grave." The story went that Reggie was killed in an automobile accident after playing with a Quija board, and if you looked at his tombstone just right you would see ghostly car lights flickering there.
I know! Shades of Stephen King’s Christine!
(Moral of the story? Friends don’t let friends who play with Ouija boards drive.)
I still love cemeteries and often visit them whenever we travel, but now instead of looking for chill thrills, I’m intrigued by what cemeteries tell us about our fellow human beings — who they were and what they valued. I count it as a piece of good fortune that the old Salt Lake City Cemetery, with its spreading pine boughs and crazy quilt of tombstones, practically sits in my backyard here in the Avenues.
Because I am married to a historian who loves nothing better than sifting through old newspapers, letters and journals in order to dig up "the rest of the story," I know a thing or two about some of the souls who’ve taken up residence in the Salt Lake cemetery since the late 1840s.
For instance, I know that Jack Slade, a reputed outlaw whose wife pickled his body in whiskey and charged folks good money to view it, is buried in an unmarked grave.
I know that Richard Morris, father of University of Utah football and basketball star Spide Morris, was also a gifted athlete who played for two territorial baseball teams — the Deserets (the Gentile team) and the Red Stockings (the Mormon team) — on a field where the City and County building now stands.
I know that the obelisk marking James McTernay’s burial spot, was erected by loyal patrons who wanted to insure that their beloved tavern owner had the biggest headstone in the cemetery.
I know that while Isaac and Catherine Brockbank eventually had more children, the first five died in the space of six years. Their little headstones stand in a row, silent reminders of a day when mortality was a close and constant companion.
I know that Fanny Brooks, one of the first Jewish settlers in the Salt Lake Valley, was famous for the bagels she baked and the bonnets she made.
I know that Charles Lambert, a stone carver who created many of the cemetery’s fragile sandstone monuments, arranged for his own headstone to be constructed of granite.
There are, of course, mysteries to spare in the Salt Lake Cemetery. Who is buried in the potter’s field? What were their stories? Why did J. Golden Kimball, the beloved swearing Mormon leader, have his mother’s name engraved on his tombstone and not his wife’s? (MEMO TO GUYS: Not a good move.) Why do some headstones bear only a single name such as "Zula" or "Louie" as if that alone would tell the story? Where did the headstone go for Mahonri Young (the artist who sculpted the "This is the Place" monument)? It was there two years ago, but now it’s gone. And who is buried beneath the tall eroded sandstone monument that resembles a Bryce Canyon hoodoo?
In the end it’s hard not to savor the essential irony of the Salt Lake Cemetery — or any cemetery — which is this: it’s a place teeming with tales of love, loss, sorrow, betrayal, anger, despair and hope.
It’s a place still teeming with life.
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