Salt Lake City Councilman Chris Wharton’s family has roots in Utah that run six generations back — and 6 feet deep.
At least 31 of his relatives have their final resting place with 124,618 other souls in the city’s historic, bucolic 150-acre cemetery, the largest municipally run burial ground in the United States. And one day — hopefully not too soon — he expects to join them in the family plot.
Long before that, though, the 170-year-old cemetery, with costs running twice what it brings in and needing millions in repairs, could use a resurrection.
To that end, the city is reviewing a multiyear, $27 million proposal that aims to reverse years of deferred maintenance and make improvements to enhance the cemetery’s lure to countless visitors — the living kind — who come to enjoy nature or recreation as much as to visit ancestors. The proposed work includes fixing roads, walls and irrigation systems, and improving the cemetery grounds overall to enhance their historic allure and parklike qualities.
“The reason it is such an important piece of property,” said Mark Smith, who has served as cemetery sexton, or caretaker, since 2002, “is it tells the story of why we have a city named Salt Lake City.”
The cemetery lies in Wharton’s northeast council district, in the city’s historic Avenues neighborhood. His predecessor, Stan Penfold, who left office at the end of last year, was the driver for the master plan now being reviewed.
“We usually go there every Memorial Day as a family to visit the graves of our relatives and leave flowers,” Wharton said. These days a visitor need not venture far onto the grounds “to see areas of the road that are literally crumbling, to see walls that are separating.”
Where the $27M would go
The master plan proposes spending $12 million to rebuild the cemetery’s 8 miles of paved roads, which cover about 30 acres of its total area. Another $1.5 million would go to repair walls and fences, some of them historic, built under the auspices of the Great Depression-era Works Progress Administration. The sprinkler and irrigation system for its 120 acres of plotted graves needs $1.6 million in upgrades, and other repairs to structures, paths and landscaping could run about $1.7 million.
Another $10 million would go to replace the cemetery’s outdated maintenance facility and build a new one away from its current location, adjacent to the historic sexton building. That would allow for improvements near the sexton building, including columbarium walls with 1,000 cremation niches and a new outdoor space for public gatherings, such as memorials.
Funding has not yet been identified, nor has the scope of work been defined and approved. Mayor Jackie Biskupski’s administration is reviewing the master plan and will make recommendations to the City Council later this year, but significant restoration is likely.
“It’s one of our largest open-space areas,” said Kristin Riker, director of city parks and public lands. “It has a huge amount of cultural significance with not only the history of Utah but also the history of the LDS Church, and all the different presidents that were buried there.”
Indeed, 12 of 16 deceased presidents of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are interred there, and burials at the site predate the city’s founding. The first was an infant child, Mary Wallace, buried by her father in fall 1847. The cemetery lists 1848 for its founding, but its official history says a proper burial ground was not designated until 1849, when Brigham Young appointed a group to create one.
The cemetery was formally organized two years later, when the city was incorporated in 1851. Cemeteries that date from that period were developed in a pastoral, garden style with parklike landscaping and were considered America’s first public parks.
A century later, in the 1950s and 1960s, suburban migration, the rise of the automobile, and the road trip with it, caused interest in cemeteries to wane until a resurgence in the 1990s. Now well into their second century, these early American cemeteries — historic open spaces with mature trees and Victorian-era landscaping — are reaching capacity and running into funding challenges.
Salt Lake City’s cemetery is among them. Its greatest revenue comes from selling gravesites. Of its 130,000 plots, only 900 are left to sell, and those will be exhausted in five to six years.
There are, however, 24,000 presold graves that have not been used. Some may go “double deep,” Smith said, as families look to maximize their investment. And with 400 to 450 burials a year, he said, “We’ll be burying for the next 100 years at least.”
The proposed columbarium will add to the cemetery’s capacity and extend its gravesite-selling revenue, perhaps by decades.
Financing now and in the future
As for paying for it all, the master plan proposes several options, with three highlighted: The city could create a special cemetery taxing district, but that would mean creating a new government entity and ceding cemetery control to it. The city also could issue bonds. Or it could enact a monthly residential park fee that would pay for upkeep at all city parks, the cemetery included.
Open houses that began two years ago brought in some creative proposals — from opening a cemetery gift shop to beekeeping. But the master plan seems to lean toward more traditional revenue sources.
No determination has yet been made, but there is a longer-term financial issue for the cemetery — how to pay for itself as revenues continue to decline. The cemetery has a mandate to care for grounds and graves in perpetuity. But its income goes directly into the city’s general fund, not to an endowed, dedicated fund that could be invested, with interest used to finance operations. For its long-term survival, the cemetery needs an infusion of between $5 million and $24 million to start such a fund, either all at once or in installments.
“We work for the families that come in,” Smith said. “If you’ve got family buried up there, then that piece of property is priceless to preserve.”
It is perhaps only a little less priceless to those who come to enjoy the scenery or explore local history.
“You go there and you look out over the valley and you can watch thunderstorms roll in, you can watch the seasons change,” Smith said. “You can see what was created when Brigham Young said, ‘We’re going to make this desert blossom as a rose.’”