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No stranger to controversy in his lifetime, early Latter-day Saint leader Brigham Young is generating a little more mystery and contention these days from his graveyard.
Church historians revealed over the summer that the 144-year-old Brigham Young Family Cemetery, 140 E. First Avenue, has been bedeviled during the past two years by a spate of trespassing, vandalism and littering, prompting stepped-up guard patrols and new lighting.
History then let slip several twists, including a disappearing fence and the discovery of dozens of unmarked graves.
Nighttime intruders have painted the word “racist” on Young’s grave plaque, church officials report, while others have dug holes, lit fires, stolen headstones and even toppled the site’s prominent bronze statue of Young, the powerful pioneer-prophet of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, buried there since 1877.
Even with the added surveillance, trespassers and marauding dogs from the neighborhood were still leaping over lower sections of a historic perimeter fence where it dipped along the sides of the property, part of a worrisome uptick in intrusions at other historic places.
“Sad to say, this is a cemetery and these things are going on,” Gregory Green, a project manager overseeing the church-owned site, told the city’s Historic Landmark Commission in July. “Our ultimate goal is to protect this historical and sacred site.”
Like Temple Square and the granite-spired temple a block to the west, the third of an acre frontier cemetery is now being renovated. As part of that larger overhaul of its stone paths, walls and aging trees, historic preservationists with the church applied in April for city approval to increase the height of a decorative 32-inch wrought-iron fence around the cemetery, which is also known as the Mormon Pioneer Memorial Monument.
The Brigham Young Family Cemetery, though surrounded these days by houses and apartments, is designated a historic landmark and falls within the city’s Avenues Historic District. That gives the commission authority over proposed changes, including any alterations to the iron fence, which is itself historic, and to other key features.
The review at City Hall brought a second revelation.
Emily Utt, a curator and historic preservation expert for the church, told commission members that ground-penetrating radar imaging conducted at the cemetery in advance of renovation work had detected as many as “40-plus” graves, while only 11 previously were marked.
“We don’t want to hit anything,” Utt told city officials over the summer, “and we’re doing our best to avoid that.”
No public mention has been made of exploring the graves further and, as of last week, a small construction crew was at full pace remaking the cemetery. Much of the previous stonework was crumbled and piled to the sides before removal, and marked gravesites were cordoned off with orange fencing behind a 6-foot chain-link perimeter.
Utt and the church’s public affairs office did not respond to inquiries from The Salt Lake Tribune on what is known about the additional graves and whether the site’s plaques might be revised in light of the radar findings.
The ‘American Moses’
History notes the land once belonged to Young, who led the LDS Church for more than 30 years after founder Joseph Smith’s death and served as Utah’s territorial governor from 1850 to 1858.
Though now overshadowed by the Brigham Apartments on South Temple, the grassy spot once offered a commanding view of the Salt Lake Valley. The church leader, nicknamed the “American Moses” and the nation’s most famous polygamist, was said to be interred in a corner of the parcel a few feet from his strawberry patch.
The family cemetery is also the known burial site for at least four of Young’s 55 plural wives — including Mary Ann Angell, Lucy Ann Decker, Eliza R. Snow and Mary Van Cott — and two others as well as at least two of his 56 children, Joseph Angell Young and Alice Young Clawson, according to earlier church descriptions.
Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, a retired Harvard University historian specializing in early Mormonism and the faith’s plural marriages, said it would be “highly unlikely” that the additional graves at the cemetery belong to Young’s other wives.
Many of those plural spouses lived long past Young’s death, married others and moved elsewhere, Ulrich noted, even though the Latter-day Saint leader’s large household survived him for many years.
“There’s reason to be a little suspect,” she said, “of the notion that they all would have ended up together in one place.”
The graves might instead be those of pioneer children or others who perished of frontier hardships and whose burial markers vanished over time, Ulrich said, noting that grave memorials for early settlers were often unstable.
“There are lots of ways to think about that site,” she said.
Researchers affiliated with church-owned Brigham Young University have conducted ground-penetrating radar scans at other sites important to Mormon history as well, including Kirtland in Ohio and Nauvoo in Illinois, primarily to locate old structures.
Utah State University announced in August it plans to apply the imaging technology to an 150-acre site around an Indigenous boarding school outside Panguitch, where Utah tribal leaders and history experts believe the bodies of Paiute children are likely buried.
Fretting over the fence
Documents indicate Latter-day Saints built the squat sandstone retaining wall that still surrounds the Brigham Young cemetery sometime in September 1877 in the weeks after his funeral.
In the 1880s, they added the decorative wrought-iron fencing atop the stone wall and a similar enclosure around Young’s grave, both designed and made by William J. Silver, a successful iron works operator in Salt Lake City.
The cemetery’s original landscaping of grass and small trees got revamped when the site was rededicated in 1974 as a monument to the Mormon pioneers who died making the trek westward to Salt Lake City. It was overhauled again in 1999 to restore grave markers and add several sandstone paths.
Earlier this year, the church drew city approval for most of its latest round of cemetery improvements, including fortifying the sandstone wall, repairing portions of the fence and replacing paving, light fixtures, a sprinkler system and some old trees.
Raising the iron fence, though, has all but tied the city and church officials in knots amid fears over the spikes in vandalism and shifting attitudes toward other memorials to controversial historic figures and events.
In late November, several monuments in San Diego’s Presidio Park depicting members of the Mormon Battalion were defaced with graffiti denouncing “colonizers” and “White supremacy.”
Historic Landmark Commission members in Salt Lake City also pointed to chronic attacks on Native American petroglyphs and pictographs in southern Utah, some of which are now protected by plexiglass.
“I don’t think aggression to this site is going to go away,” member Babs De Lay, also a Salt Lake City real estate agent, said of Young’s cemetery. “I want to help them protect this at all costs, but I don’t have any suggestions other than what they’re proposing right now.”
“It’s all of our history,” De Lay said.
The panel of historic preservationists has so far rejected two proposals for delicately raising the old iron pieces surrounding the graveyard between 5 and 9.5 feet, depending on the location, citing the wrought-iron original as a crucial feature of the site’s historic look and feel.
In July and again in September, members fretted over the competing interests of desperately wanting to protect the graveyard from further damage while also retaining its historic character.
“Which are we going to advocate for more fiercely?” then-commissioner Victoria Petro-Eschler, who has since been elected and named to the City Council, asked her colleagues at one point. “It feels like we’re being asked to cut the baby in half.”
Utt and other church officials aired two separate designs that would temporarily weld new wrought-iron bar stock of a similar look to the bottom the existing fence and then attach that taller structure to the stone wall.
That approach, Utt said, would improve security while also retaining the fence’s essential historic traits.
“Raising the fence is really the best option to keep those people out after hours that want to do damage to this property,” Utt told city officials. “If you have a better idea, I would love to hear it.”
The proposed changes met city code, Utt argued, and could also be easily undone and the original fence restored should a better way come along to stem the trespassing. She also referred to 6-foot fences the city has already permitted around the historic Salt Lake City Cemetery, also in the Avenues, and Mount Olivet, 1342 E. 500 South.
But after throwing up their hands in July and tabling the request, commission members denied a second set of fence designs and other security upgrades in September, saying that adding height to the iron perimeter would have a negative impact on its historic integrity.
The alterations, according to a final report from city planners, “do not have any historical basis and could be interpreted as creating a false sense of history or architecture.”
Church officials filed a formal appeal to a city administrative judge, who denied it in late November.
Then, sometime around Thanksgiving, a construction crew working for the church removed the fence and the smaller enclosure around Young’s white grave marker from the cemetery site and took them to an undisclosed location, in violation of the city’s order.
City planner Amy Thompson said the move surprised city officials, who have since filed an enforcement action against the church that could carry fines if it isn’t remedied. Thompson said church officials reported they misunderstood the city’s approval for other work at the cemetery, even though its written order specifically barred the fence’s removal.
A church spokesperson issued a statement this past week acknowledging that its crews had gone ahead with repairing the cemetery’s historic stone wall, upgrading lighting and doing other maintenance work.
The historic wrought-iron fence around the cemetery “was carefully removed and is being temporarily stored off-site for safekeeping,” the statement said. “It will be restored and reinstalled as a part of the project.”
The church reportedly plans to file a new application for changes at the site soon, Thompson said, to begin another chapter for Brigham Young’s historic final resting place.