Historian clears up mystery over who else is buried near Brigham Young

Unmarked graves located by ground-penetrating radar belong to Mormon pioneer-prophet’s extended family — and a historic perimeter fence that vanished around Thanksgiving is in “safekeeping” while undergoing repairs.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Brigham Young Family Cemetery, 140 E. First Avenue in Salt Lake City, as seen on Saturday, Nov. 27, 2021. Church historians have shed new light on graves in the small cemetery and on a historic perimeter fence that temporarily went missing.

Editor’s note This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.

Historians have cast new light on a few small mysteries surrounding the Salt Lake City grave of Mormon pioneer-prophet Brigham Young.

Crews for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are renovating the small cemetery in the Avenues in work that includes adding improved lighting and other enhancements meant to better protect the historic site from a recent uptick in vandalism and trespassing.

Ground-penetrating radar of the graveyard in advance of that construction work detected “40-plus” burial sites, only a dozen or so of which were marked, a church historic preservationist told city officials earlier this year.

Church officials have since declined to elaborate on comments about the graves by Emily Utt, a historic sites curator for the Utah-based faith, delivered in July to the city’s Historic Landmark Commission in its review of the renovation work.

But a retired church historian who has studied the relics of Utah’s pioneer past said the findings are not a surprise. Nearly 48 graves are documented in burial lists and death records related to the family cemetery located at 140 E. First Avenue, Randy Dixon said, including wives, children, grandchildren and a few neighbors of the polygamous Latter-day Saint leader.

The radar survey, according to Dixon, was not intended to locate all the cemetery’s burial plots but rather to pinpoint those situated in sections where the graveyard’s paths, trees and wrought-iron perimeter fence are being overhauled.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Brigham Young Family Cemetery, 140 E. First Avenue, on Saturday, Nov. 27, 2021.

Burials at the cemetery, located on land Young once owned, predate the powerful leader’s death in 1877, said Dixon, who has retired from the Church History Museum in Salt Lake City. The third of an acre site was used well after his interment for extended family members and those associated with the large households that survived him.

“Over the years, those markers deteriorated and disappeared, but, at this point anyway, they’re not trying to identify all those other burials,” he said. “They just wanted to make sure it wouldn’t disturb anything in the area where they were working.”

As with Temple Square a block to the west, the frontier-era cemetery, which is now surrounded by homes and apartments, is being improved, according to church plans aired at City Hall.

As part of replacing its distinct stone paths, walls, lights and mature trees, officials with the church applied in April for approval to boost the height of the decorative 32-inch wrought-iron fence around the cemetery, which is also known as the Mormon Pioneer Memorial Monument.

Church officials sought to raise the fence to between 5 and 9.5 feet as an added security measure in light of a rise in vandalism over the past two years, including graffiti on Young’s plaque and the theft of several headstones.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Aerial view of the Brigham Young Family Cemetery, 140 E. First Avenue, on Saturday, Nov. 27, 2021.

The Brigham Young Family Cemetery is designated a historic landmark within the city’s Avenues Historic District. That gives the Historic Landmark Commission authority over the proposed changes and commission members had declined in July and September to approve church plans for altering the fence.

The wrought-iron fencing mounted atop a stone wall around the cemetery and a similar enclosure around Young’s grave were both designed and made by William J. Silver, a successful iron works operator in Salt Lake City.

Though they expressed sympathy for security worries, commission members and city staffers concluded that the church’s plans to temporarily weld new wrought-iron bar stock to the bottom the existing fence and then reattach that taller structure to the stone wall surrounding the cemetery “do not have any historical basis.”

Then, around Thanksgiving, as the church unsuccessfully appealed the commission’s ruling, the fence disappeared from the cemetery, in apparent violation of a city order that approved other work at the site.

In documents filed three days before Christmas, officials essentially sought permission retroactively with a request for approval. “We propose removing the perimeter fence to make the necessary repairs and improve the structural performance,” church officials wrote — after the fence was gone.

“These repairs are more easily made in a shop than on-site,” they wrote, noting the removal would also spare neighbors the noise of sandblasting and painting the fence and minimize “potential damage to other site features.”

“Each section of the fence will be labeled and cataloged before removal to ensure that all pieces will be reinstalled in the original location,” church officials wrote. The same care, they said, would be taken with a smaller fence surrounding Young’s white grave maker, which was also removed around Thanksgiving.

Off-site work on the perimeter fence was to include lengthening its anchor points in the stone wall, according to the application, replacing and repairing missing or damaged pieces and removing some L-shaped brackets added to the fence over the years.

And as per the city’s Dec. 22 approval of the request, no changes are being made for now to the existing fence height.

In a statement issued Dec. 7, a church spokesperson said, “the historic wrought-iron fence that surrounds the cemetery was carefully removed and is being temporarily stored off-site for safekeeping.”

“It will be restored and reinstalled as a part of the project,” the spokesperson said. Meanwhile, a 6-foot chain-link perimeter fence still surrounded the cemetery as of Monday as the renovation work continued.