Features and Occasionals

A New Life for the City Cemetery?

By Katherine Pioli

What to consider when a cemetary reaches capacity.

It was late September, 1848, when George B. Wallace walked out of the new Mormon pioneer settlement of Salt Lake City, away from the muddy streets crowded with people, horses and wagons, and into the snow-covered sage-grown benches on the city’s northeast side. In his arms was the small body of his baby daughter, Mary M. Wallace, born the winter before at Indian Winter Quarters, and dead, at 21 months, of diarrhea—her baby brother would soon follow. The foothills were a quiet place for a burial, a place that might remain undisturbed by the quickly growing settlement below. She would be alone and at peace.

The memory of baby Mary M. Wallace remains today etched in stone, immortalized on the black obelisk that bears her name at the Salt Lake City Cemetery and again on the plaque above the cemetery’s archway entrance that declares: Salt Lake Cemetery Est. 1848. The pioneer child was the first burial in what is today the City Cemetery—located in the Avenues between N and U streets and 4th and 11th avenues.

Not long after George Wallace found his daughter’s final resting place, other pioneer families followed laying to rest their loved ones on the same sage-covered hill. The area became an official burial site when it was taken over by the city and Wallace became the first sexton in charge of the grounds. Today the City Cemetery is the largest municipal cemetery in the United States with 150 acres of land covered by 9.5 miles of road and 124,000 burial plots (Salt Lake City is currently home to about 200,000 living citizens).

Despite its size, the City Cemetery is frighteningly close to full capacity. According to the city’s records, and projections compiled for the SLC Cemetery Master Plan, a project begun by the city in 2009, the municipality has “contractual obligation to provide burials for 24,000 pre-sold burial rights.” Unsold burial sites remaining at City Cemetery, as of July of this year, number a mere 800.

Those numbers have Salt Lake City doing some deep soul searching. After the city stops burying people, is the cemetery still fulfilling its purpose? Does it lose its value to the community? And how else could a community use and relate to that space? After another 25 or 50 or 100 years, who will care if the graves are cared for, the lawn cut, trees planted, roads repaired? Will the city and its tax payers still want to set aside money for its upkeep?

The City Cemetery, under municipal management, receives funding through city taxes. Money from the sale of gravesites goes into a general fund for the city from which all municipal programs draw. Nancy Monteith, a landscape architect and park planner for the city who is currently engaged with the Cemetery Master Plan team, calls that kind of funding a double-edged sword. On one hand, it means that the Cemetery will never exactly run out of money; on the other hand it is always competing with other municipal projects for funding, especially when it comes to additional funding for capital improvement projects. Currently, the 9.5 miles of roads through the cemetery are in such a state of disrepair, says Monteith, that city engineers have assessed repair costs at around $20 million. There’s also other aging infrastructure—retaining walls, buildings—and long-term maintenance of the grounds complicated by steep slopes and grades (there’s a 300-foot elevation gain from Fourth Ave. to 1100 East), and complications with minimal parking and limited expansion options. And who helps decide if these cemetery issues receive priority funding? Well, getting residents interested in the longevity of the City Cemetery is integral.

That’s where the master plan comes in. Within the next 100 years no one will be burying loved ones in the City Cemetery. As that use naturally phases out, the city hopes to reinvent the cemetery as a space for the living.

From Boston to Atlanta to Philadelphia, municipal cemeteries are already changing what it means to be a cemetery. Many have gift shops and visitor centers. They host weddings, horticulture workshops, wine tastings and movie screenings, concert series and yoga classes, musicals and plays, even car shows. Salt Lake officials already have some idea of the direction they hope to take, and don’t worry, it’s not car shows. “The public has voiced a spectrum of desires with many wanting no change at all,” says Nancy Monteith, noting feedback the city received during their first public open house on the issue last June. “We [the city] want to make the Cemetery accessible for appropriate uses.”

To find what the city may constitute “appropriate use” one should go back nearly 200 years to the founding of the first “garden style” cemetery, Mt. Auburn, in Boston, Massachusetts. Garden cemeteries, which enjoyed widespread popularity in the United States in the middle of the 19th century, were based upon English landscape gardening and designed as a contrast to increasingly urban settings. Thought of as places for the living as much as for the dead, they were essentially city parks, places where families could picnic and take long walks and find solitude and beauty.

Solitude; open space; religious and historic importance are values that city planners hope to resurrect when it comes to the public’s perception of the City Cemetery. And there’s another interesting value that officials hope to make more visible: wildlife.

Those who have walked through the City Cemetery, or any other cemetery near the city’s foothills, likely have their own story of an animal encounter, deer and magpies being the most common sightings, but there are others. In 2014, KSL News profiled two of the City Cemetery’s living residents, a nesting pair of great horned owls who had made their home among the graves for enough years (about six) that some locals had given them names—Olive and Walt.

The City Cemetery actually may have invaluable potential as wildlife habitat if it’s managed wisely. Maps created for the Salt Lake City Open Space Acquisition Strategy (2010) show that the City Cemetery is in a critical zone within a half mile of areas considered important habitat for critical or endangered species like the large yellow ladies slipper, Peregrine falcon, Swainson’s hawk, Wasatch daisy, Wasatch fitweed, the western toad and the Mill Creek mountain snail.

Salt Lake residents have the opportunity over the next few months to shape the future of this beautiful 150-acre plot of open space bordering the city streets and grass-grown  hills. Where there were once only a handful of graves on a sagebrush hillside there now lay thousands under the cool shade of blue spruce, Norway maples, Utah juniper, birch, hawthorn—visited by mule deer does with their fawn and little red foxes and the occasional moose. What do we wish to remain in another 150 years?

The next public open house to discuss concepts and ideas will be held on November 16 at the Salt Lake City Main Library, downstairs in conference rooms A, B, and C, 4:30-7:30pm.

Katherine Pioli is CATALYST’s associate editor.


This article was originally published on October 2, 2016.