City surveys damage winds heaped on top of cemetery’s already crumbling infrastructure

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Hundreds of headstones in the Salt Lake City Cemetery were damages in the recent wind storm, Friday, Sept. 18, 2020.

As the rain let up before noon Saturday, Jordan Rogers dropped by the Salt Lake City Cemetery for a quiet stroll.

“Cemeteries are always really peaceful, it’s a nice morning walk,” she said. “No chainsaws out this morning, so that’s good.”

While the air was still over the vast, 121-acre memorial park, the grounds were another story. Massive trees, stumps and limbs remained strewn about from the hurricane-force winds 10 days before. Root balls had opened wide holes in the earth and flipped granite markers. Tangled branches shrouded rows of monuments. Pioneer-era headstones lay smashed beneath century-old trunks.

“It looks like a war,” said John Ferrone, an avid walker who has visited the cemetery regularly for decades. “There’s tons of damage here, more than anywhere else."

Although some of the park’s massive uprooted trees had been sawn and stacked, dozens remained toppled throughout the grounds, their leaves and needles still green.

The cemetery is technically closed to the public due to danger from fallen trees and power lines, but city workers left visitors alone and instead focused on a cleanup effort in the northeast quadrant.

“I asked if one area of the cemetery got hit harder than the other. It was pretty equally distributed,” said Kristin Riker, public services deputy director for Salt Lake City Public Lands.

Of the cemetery’s 2,385 trees, 257 went down in the wind. No burial vaults or caskets were disturbed, Riker said, even though large 100-year-old trees ripped out large chunks of the ground as they fell, pulling up asphalt, curbs and gutters.

The city has yet to inventory damage to grave markers, many of which mark the resting place of some of the state’s earliest emigrant settlers.

“We’re getting a small group of volunteers trained to assess damage, do surveys, take photos and gather all the information necessary so we can reach out to those families that have impacted headstones,” Riker said. “Unfortunately some of those sites are so old that we might not ... have descendants' phone numbers.”

Headstone repairs will likely be the responsibility of those successors, since each plot is technically private property. The city is only responsible for maintaining the grounds, Riker said.

Although the cemetery remains closed to the public for now, the city is still trying to accommodate two funerals per day.

“Even at two per day, we’re barely getting them done,” Riker said. “Our main goal is trying to make it a safe area for the family.”

Riker added that she hasn’t tallied up a budget estimate for removing all the debris, but she said it can cost at least $2,000 per tree, and quite possibly more, since workers can’t use heavy machinery to avoid damaging burial plots.

The cleanup expense could add another blow to the cemetery’s financial troubles, which began piling up long before the storm hit.

In a report sent to the City Council on Sept. 1, staff warned that Salt Lake City Cemetery expenses are double its revenues.

“In addition to this, the Cemetery’s available grave sites for sale are dwindling, the Cemetery has a contractual obligation to provide perpetual care of the Cemetery site, and the Cemetery does not have an established perpetual care fund, which ... is atypical for municipal cemeteries,” according to the report.

City staff project that net losses will reach $1 million per year by 2023.

The cemetery is also in dire need of maintenance and upgrades. The report notes that 7.9 miles of roads are due for repair at an estimated cost of $12.5 million.

The east irrigation system, now badly damaged due to the storm, hasn’t had an upgrade since the 1980s. City staff estimate it will take $1.6 million to bring those sprinklers up to snuff. Walls and fences need a $1.5 million overhaul, it will take $300,000 to make necessary upgrades to maintenance buildings and another $12,500 to improve cemetery gates. The list goes on.

“The cemetery always runs in the red,” Riker said. “[The storm damage] makes everything in our park system strained. We are tracking our costs.”

The city plans to apply for funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, if eligible. In the meantime, Riker and other city workers are focused on cleaning up the cemetery so it can safely reopen.

“Our staff are trying really hard to accommodate the needs of the community at this time," Riker said. "We’ll keep at it until it’s done.”