Mark Smith, longest-serving sexton and ‘champion’ of the Salt Lake City municipal cemetery, dies at 55

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Mark Smith stands among grave markers at the Salt Lake City Cemetery in 2005.

For 20 years, Mark Smith was a near-constant presence at the historic Salt Lake City Cemetery, where he served as its 31st and longest-serving sexton.

He was often the first one in each day at the old caretaker’s house he’d renovated into an office. After drinking coffee on the porch and watching the morning sunlight filter through the trees, he’d get to work managing operations, budgets, staffing, customer service and more for the 120-acre cemetery tucked in the Avenues neighborhood in Salt Lake City. As the sun began to set, he was usually the last one out the door — even after he was diagnosed with cancer in 2016.

Smith, 55, died of his battle with multiple myeloma July 30, leaving the office that bears his name dark and the chair he once filled empty.

“Sometimes you think he’s going to come back,” Kim Cardenas, an office tech who worked with Smith for two decades, said as she held back tears in a recent interview. “‘He’s just getting his treatment. He’ll be back.’ We miss him a lot.”

Under his leadership, Smith’s colleagues said he “transformed” the municipal cemetery.

He literally wrote the book about the location’s 171-year history, bringing increased interest and awareness to its grounds. He worked to upgrade equipment and practices and advocated for funding for increased maintenance and service — even winning some of it. He helped memorialize everyone from presidents of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to 20 children who died in a school shooting in Newtown, Conn., some 2,000 miles away.

But his legacy “really isn’t so much this great place,” said Bill Rutherford, a former Salt Lake City forester who worked alongside Smith for many years.

“It’s not even so much the great things that he did,” he continued. “It was really the connection he made with people. And that’s going to change people’s lives. It’s changed my life forever. That’s his legacy.”

Friends, family and colleagues remember Smith as kind and compassionate and someone who valued equitable treatment for everyone. Those qualities meant he was skilled at working with grieving families at the cemetery, they said, and at making friends wherever he went.

A Utah native, Smith was born in 1963 and attended Cottonwood High School, where he played defensive end on the football team. He worked for years at his family’s nursery in Bountiful in junior high and high school and went on to manage several nurseries for major retailers and local businesses after graduation.

Julie Fratto-Smith first met him in 1996, in a parking lot at the nursery where he was working at the time. They’d been set up on a date because of their common work in the horticulture industry and she liked him right away.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) "He always called it a living museum and a hidden gem," said Julie Fratto-Smith, August 16, 2019 of her late husband Mark Smith, the longtime sexton of the Salt Lake City Cemetery, who died in July.

“He was kind and loving and caring and everything else,” the former city forester recalled with a sad laugh.

The couple married in 1997, shortly before Smith started as a groundskeeper at the city cemetery two years later. He became sexton in 2002, a position she said appealed to him because of his passion for both history and nature.

Those were joys he tried to share with those he loved.

“He would send everybody on his contact list pictures of sunrises, pictures of owls perched in the tree, pictures of foxes walking around, pictures of deer bedded down, pictures of radiant sunrises and sunsets” at the cemetery, Rutherford remembered. “He would take pictures of new fallen snow on graves. He treasured this place and he saw so much more in it than most people did.”

Smith was diagnosed with cancer in 2016 but took little time off, working through January 2019 aside from two stints on short-term disability. Even as he battled his illness, he made time to research and co-write the book “Images of America: Salt Lake City Cemetery,” which offers details about the location’s history, nature and operations.

“Whenever Mark had chemo up at Huntsman [Cancer Hospital], he was working from his laptop,” Fratto-Smith said. “And after chemo, he went back to work, always putting the cemetery before himself.”

Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski, who worked with Smith through this time, called him a “true public servant” and praised his careful research and presentation of information in his book.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Julie Fratto-Smith turns the pages of "Salt Lake Cemetery," a book written by her late husband Mark Smith, who was the longtime sexton of the Salt Lake City Cemetery.

“He saw a real jewel in our city in that cemetery and wanted to kind of uncover that for the world to really know and to be able to read about and didn’t want that information to leave with him,” she said. “He was a real believer in the work he was doing — the meaning of it not just for him but for everyone who is connected to that space somehow.”

While Smith loved his job and was passionate about sharing the cemetery with others, Fratto-Smith said the role of sexton brought with it challenges that sometimes weighed on her husband.

Dealing with family members who have recently lost a loved one can be hard, she said. Even more difficult, though, was finding the bodies of multiple people who had died by suicide at the cemetery over the years.

“I don’t think that his directors even knew what he had to do on a daily basis to help grieving families,” she said. “He was very affected by all of the sadness there.”

Running Salt Lake City’s cemetery, which is one of the largest city-operated burial sites in the United States, also came with financial troubles.

The cemetery has a mandate to care for grounds and graves in perpetuity, a task made difficult by the fact that costs run twice what it brings in. And most of the cemetery’s income goes directly into the city’s general fund rather to an endowed, dedicated reserve that could be invested with interest and used to finance operations.

In an effort to address these problems, Smith worked with the city government on a $27 million proposal aiming to reverse years of deferred maintenance on roads, walls, irrigation systems and the grounds of the cemetery. That master plan, which is still under city consideration, noted a need for $12.5 million for rebuilding the cemetery’s 8 miles of paved roads, $1.6 million in upgrades to the sprinkler and irrigation system and $1.5 million to repair walls and fences.

Biskupski acknowledged that the cemetery “hasn’t been maintained well” but said “there is not a financial tool at this moment that would help us restore it,” since needs far exceed available funding.

“I’m contemplating what to do with that,” she said, noting that she considers creation of a plan to address cemetery needs as a priority before she leaves office early next year.

(Scott Sommerdorf | Tribune file photo) The Salt Lake City Cemetery, as seen on April 13, 2018. The cemetery is historic, beloved by relatives, neighbors, nature and recreation lovers — and needs about $27 million in repairs, improvements and financial aid.

Though to some it may seem an unusual choice, Smith’s firsthand experience with the pitfalls of maintenance and the realities of burial are part of the reason the cemetery caretaker decided to be cremated.

“He has seen and knows what happens to you when you're buried,” explained Fratto-Smith, who plans to spread her husband’s ashes in one of the rivers where he loved to fish.

In the weeks after his death, the city has yet to name a new lead cemetery caretaker. Curtis Adkins, who worked as Smith’s assistant for 11 years, is serving as acting sexton in the meantime. Without his former boss, Adkins said, “there are days I feel lost.”

But while Smith may no longer be a constant presence at the cemetery — drinking coffee on the porch, snapping photos of wildlife and cracking jokes with office staff — those who knew him say his love and dedication for the place will live on through the work of his employees, the improvements he fought for and the upgrades that are still to come.

“Because of the kind of person he was, he wanted to make sure everybody knew what a magnificent place this was and to love it as much as he did,” Rutherford said. “And because of what he did, he accomplished that. The cemetery is no longer just another piece of the city’s infrastructure. It’s a prominent and respected place.”