10 questions with Mark Smith

Sponsored by BYU Studies—Mark Smith is Sexton of the Salt Lake City Cemetery and co-author of Salt Lake City Cemetery (Images of America).

Welcome! Before we begin, would you tell us a little bit about yourself and the Salt Lake City cemetery?

I have been with Salt Lake City Cemetery since 1999 and became the Sexton  of the Salt Lake City Cemetery in 2002. Prior to coming to the city my background is in horticulture, Retail Nursery Management and Landscape design and installation. So becoming the Sexton was a chance for me to use my horticulture background to help diversify the amazing urban forest we have here at the cemetery and help care for the grounds. Using my previous office management experience helped me in the management of the cemetery  office.

But being a Sexton is a hands-on learning experience—one that has been an amazing and interesting part of my career and I thoroughly enjoy my job each and every day!

Being a sexton, you never know what is going to come across your desk or who might meet. I feel as a sexton you need to take to heart three words: stewardship, preservation and obligation. As a sexton you have an obligation to be a good steward over what you have been  entrusted to care for, and you have a duty to preserve the history, as well as plan for the future.

Each and every employee at the cemetery takes pride and ownership in working here. It’s more than just a job and that’s what make my job as sexton so enjoyable—having such an amazing team to work with.

A view of the Wasatch Mountains from just inside a West entrance to the cemetery with work sheds and machinery in the background. Photo credit: Kurt Manwaring.

What is a Sexton and what are your main duties at the cemetery?

If you look up the word Sexton you will get the two responses below:

  • a person who looks after a church and churchyard, sometimes acting as bell-ringer and formerly as a gravedigger.
  • A sexton is an officer of a church, congregation, or synagogue charged with the maintenance of its buildings and/or the surrounding graveyard. In smaller places of worship, this office is often combined with that of verger. In larger buildings, such as cathedrals, a team of sextons may be employed.

But what a Sexton is and what they do is so much more. As I state below I am responsible for all that happens with in and concerning the cemetery operations, budgets, burials, staffing, customer service and much more.

I tell people some days I am a mediator between families that might not see eye to eye while making final arrangements. Some days I am a grief counselor for the individual who is asking why a young life was taken away so soon. Some days I’m the one who has to say no due to city ordinances.

I spend a lot of time explaining what, why and how thing happen with the cemetery.

A sexton is a steward of what he has been given to care for. He needs to look  back at what has happened and plan for the future so the next person can carry  on and care for this amazing place and its history, the individuals who are buried here, and the families who will come in need of the service we perform. 

Give us a sense of how large the cemetery is.

The Salt Lake City  Cemetery consists of 120 acres of burial grounds with nine-and-a-half miles of roadways and two parking areas that we maintain. We have 130,000 plotted gravesites. Currently, we have just buried over 125,000 individuals in our cemetery. We have more than 23,000 pre-sold gravesites that are pre-owned and not yet used. We are seeing more and more individuals utilize these for double deep (one person buried on top of another) burials, along with  cremation burials (multiple burials on one gravesite). At that rate we could be looking at doing  another 30,000 to 40,000 burials before we are full. We preform between 400 to 450 burials a year so we will be preforming burials for the next  100 years or more.

At present, we have 600 gravesites left to sale. Once these are gone we will have no more burial rights to offer individuals for sale. In the  future, the cemetery Master Plan calls for the development of some cremation niches. Once the city moves forward with this we will have that option.

Looking down at the Salt Lake Valley over a small portion of the Salt Lake City Cemetery from the East bench. Photo credit: Kurt Manwaring

The care  of the cemetery operations and grounds is a challenge, but one the cemetery staff doesn’t take lightly. They do an amazing job. We have several crews that keep the cemetery running, including 12 full time employees that work at the cemetery. And then we hire seasonal workers to help during the mowing and trimming seasons (April through September). 

To help you understand the dynamics of the cemetery operations  I will try to break it down by work groups and what they do. I am giving you their names because each and  everyone deserves to be recognized for the job they do. I use the term ‘job’ loosely due to the fact it is a job, but it’s much, much more to all of us. We all take ownership in this amazing place and  feel it’s our personal responsibility or obligation to be good stewards and preserve the Salt Lake  Cemetery for future  generations while doing our best to take care of those in need of our services in the present.

We have a sign in our office that reads:

The difference between ordinary and extraordinary is the  little  “extra” you do! 

This sign is placed in the office of the Salt Lake City Cemetery to remind the staff of the importance of their individual contributions. Photo credit: Kim Cardenas.

This is what we as a team strive for each and every day.

There is the Sexton position who oversee the entire operations of the cemetery.

We have 3 full-time office staff: Kim Cardenas, Robyn Parlett and Brandi Madrill. They are the face of the cemetery and the front line so to speak. They are the first faces the families see they help families through this hard time. They help the families navigate this difficult time making arrangements for the burial of a loved one. They assist visitors in finding grave locations, keep all the records of those who are buried within our cemetery, assist in personal genealogy quests, as well as anything else that comes their way. They work with all the headstone and vault companies who come to preform work with in the cemetery grounds. They are also vital in assisting me with projects that come across my desk. 

There is my field supervisor, Curtis Adkins, who oversees all operation carried out on the cemetery grounds. This includes the opening and closing of the graves, the placement of headstone,  watering of the lawn, work order request from families, the mowing and trimming of the lawn the snow removal from the roads, sidewalks and gravesites during winter months, and anything else I send his way.

We have 4 equipment operators Charles Matthews, Daniel Henson, Dallas Jenson and Cameron Cooper.  These four amazing individuals make sure the graves are ready and go out of their way to make sure all the family’s needs  are met. All of us want to make sure that each and every  family we serve has the best experience and gains the closure they need to say goodbye to their loved one.

We have one plumber, James “Jim” McCormack. He oversees the irrigation of the entire cemetery. He inputs all the scheduling through our central control system as well as does all the repair work on this intricate system. He also has no problem with helping take care of the occasional funeral or removal of snow.

We have one Maintenance Worker, Lee Triplett. He is our go-to person for all the repair work needed  in the cemetery. Lee is a jack of all trades. Every operation needs someone like Lee to keep all the pieces put together and running.

And lastly, but not least important in my fulltime staff is Grounds Keeper, Aaron Salinas. Aaron is critical during the mowing season to oversee the seasonal crew that hand trim around the 125,000 headstones we care for. In the winter he helps with funerals, snow removal or anything else that is asked of him.

Two visitors to the Salt Lake City Cemetery, Kylee Moncur and Emelia Manwaring, examine the grave of George Albert Smith, who was buried in 1875. Smith was a cousin of Joseph Smith. Photo credit: Kurt Manwaring

We hire around 15 seasonal employees (April through  September). They are responsible for  mowing, trimming and sod replacement on all new interments as well as  assisting full-time staff with any work order requests the office receives from families.

We start mowing and trimming our 120 acres in April and don’t stop until September.

The crews start at  one end of the cemetery and by the time they reach the other end it’s time to start again. It’s one continuous loop of mowing and trimming during this time. It takes approximately seven days to mow the cemetery with a five-person riding-mower crew, and 14 days to trim around 125,000 headstones in the cemetery with a  six-person trimming crew. We have one person assigned to take care of our amazing urban forest and a two-person grave crew to replace sod on new graves.

All employees at the cemetery feel an ownership in this amazing place. It’s more than just a job it’s being part of living history. And we all feel honored to serve those who are in need  of our assistance in their time of need.

Why do most of the headstones in the cemetery face north-south?

The reason most of the headstones are facing north-south is that is the way the gravesites are laid out. The head of the  grave is to the west with the foot of the grave being the at the east. The headstone is placed at the west end of the grave as per city ordinance as well as that is where the head is.

As you walk through the cemetery you will see names on both the West  and East of a headstone. The inscription and placement is the choice of the family. If you choose to have the name inscribed on the west side of the headstone you will be standing on the grave to the west of where  your loved ones buried. If you have  the name inscribed on the east of the stone when you  read it, you will be standing on your loved ones grave. As per city ordinance, all headstone are limited to 36 inches tall and are now placed at the West end of the grave due to the automation of the operations and space limitations.

As you traverse the hills throughout the cemetery you will notice that there are exceptions to the headstone ordinance being at the head on a grave.

The Smith plot at the Salt Lake City cemetery includes graves that face east-west instead of north-south. This plot includes the graves of Joseph Fielding Smith, Joseph F. Smith, and others—including a marker in memory of Joseph and Hyrum Smith who were killed in Carthage, Illinois, in 1847. Photo credit: Kurt Manwaring

Most of these were placed well prior to the ordinance being put into place. We have 20-foot tall obelisks. We have what are known as ‘ledger markers’ that span the entire grave, and we have headstones that are petrified wood, as well as some headstones that face east to west and are placed on the entire grave.

These exceptions make the maintenance, watering and preforming of future burials a challenge but the amazing cemetery crew works around them to get the job done and take care of all who are entrusted to our care.

What are the categories used in the book to present different individuals buried in the cemetery? How did you decide upon which category to use when individuals fit the criteria for multiple groups?

  1. Early History of the Salt Lake City Cemetery 11
  2. Nature in the Salt Lake City Cemetery 23
  3. Pioneers 33
  4. Presidents of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints 45
  5. Mormon Leaders and Influencers 59
  6. Fascinating Figures 75
  7. Memorial Areas 105
  8. Cemetery Operations 117

Above are the different categories in the book as far as why these were chosen for the book we felt it was the best way to divide up the cemetery. We have such a diverse population of interesting individuals buried with in our cemetery, I’m sure there are many way people feel it could be divided up. But we felt for what  we were trying to highlight this was the best way.

As far as who went into what category, at times this was very easy—and at times it was very tricky because so many individual wore more than one hat, so to speak.

What is the origin story for the cemetery and who was the first person buried there?

Newly arrived in the territory then called Deseret, a grieving father named George Wallace searched the Salt Lake City foothills for a place where he could lay his daughter Mary to rest away from the crowded pioneer burial grounds, but close enough for him to easily visit.

Mary Wallace was the first person buried in what is now the Salt Lake City Cemetery—the largest city-owned cemetery in the United States. Photo credit: Kurt Manwaring

One can only imagine his sorrow when setting out to find this place.

Wallace’s thoughtful selection of a beautiful and peaceful hillside overlooking the Salt Lake valley is evidence for how much his little girl’s short life meant to him, and in burying her there, he laid the foundation for what is now the Salt Lake City Cemetery.

Mary Wallace died in 1848, just a year after Mormon pioneers first settled in the Salt Lake valley. In 1848, the Salt Lake City Cemetery was formally opened, with George Wallace, fittingly, serving as its first sexton.

In the 170 years since he laid his daughter to rest, the Salt Lake City Cemetery grounds have remained in continual operation and expanded from 20 acres to approximately 120 acres, where more than 125,000 individuals have been buried at the time of publication. The Salt Lake City Cemetery continues to grow, with approximately 34,000 additional burials expected to be conducted in future years and more than 600 remaining burial rights for sale.

No other municipal cemetery in the nation can match the Salt Lake City Cemetery’s combined record of longevity, total number of burials, and overall size.

Resting on a bench above downtown Salt Lake City and at the edge of the historic Avenues neighborhood, visitors to the Salt Lake City Cemetery are afforded some of the best possible views of the entire Salt Lake valley, and the Wasatch and Oquirrh Mountains. At its southwestern entrance, the sexton’s residence and gate stand as landmarks for the property.

Within, the grounds are an urban forest, with roughly 3,000 trees of 42 species planted along roadsides creating peaceful paths throughout the grounds. These trees provide a cool respite for visitors and the diverse wildlife that quietly roams the Salt Lake City Cemetery, namely deer, fox, moose, and dozens of bird species.

A deer munches on a wreath at a new grave in the Salt Lake City Cemetery. Photo credit: Kurt Manwaring

What question are you most often asked about the cemetery and how do you respond?

The question I am most often asked is who is the most important person buried in the cemetery? And I always answer it the same way,  it is my Great Grandfather Albert Smith.  I follow up that with the most important person to them is the one they have come here to find whether it be their Great Grandfather or someone else.

Tell us about the gold pioneer placards that appear on some of the gravestones.

These are to signify that that  individual was  identified as a pioneer by the Daughters of the Utah Pioneers and placed there. So I would defer that question to them for clarification as to how they determined that status of the individuals that had them placed on their headstones.

How many presidents of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are buried in the cemetery? 

12 presidents of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are buried in our cemetery. I would say that answer is better answered by our new book, Salt Lake City Cemetery (Images of America).

What are two or three gravesites with bizarre backstories?

Jack Slade – Lawman, teamster, gunfighter and all around interesting person.

He was buried in a pauper section of our cemetery after he was lynched. What sets him apart is he was buried in a lead-lined coffin filled with whiskey to preserve his body from Virginia City, Montana, to Salt Lake City Cemetery.

The grave of Joseph “Jack” Slade sits alone in the middle of a pauper’s field in the Salt Lake City Cemetery. After he was executed by hanging in Montana, his body was pickled in whiskey until his casket was brought several months later to Salt Lake. Photo credit: Kurt Manwaring

Porter Rockwell – Famous bodyguard for Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, gun fighter and  all-around tough guy.

Known as the ‘Destroying Angel of Mormondom,’ he was told by Joseph Smith if he never cut his hair he would not be killed and die of old age. Through research for the book, Corey found that he did cut his hair once in his life even though he was told not to: in order to make a wig for a woman who lost her hair due to illness.

So even though he was a tough guy he had a soft side as well.

The grave of Orrin Porter Rockwell, the colorful pioneer and bodyguard of Joseph Smith. Photo credit: Kurt Manwaring

Lilly Gray – Her headstone puts her in this category.

It reads, ‘Victim of the Beast 666,’ with  most people not knowing the beast referred to the political parties in the eyes of her husband who placed the headstone for his wife, not knowing it would make her an urban legend.

The grave of Lilly Gray remains an oft-visited location due to the epitaph which reads, “Victim of the Beast 666.” Photo credit: Kurt Manwaring

What does it mean when a rock is placed on top of a gravestone?

When a rock, coin, etc., instead  of flowers that is  the persons way of telling their loved one the stopped by. It replaces the act of placing flowers.

I was told by the Sexton of the Jewish Cemetery this was a Jewish custom that has been adopted by the mainstream public. (I would fact-check the Jewish custom; I took Carol for her word on that.) Either way, no matter who’s custom it is, it comes down to showing a sign of respect  to the person who is buried  there by the person who is taking time to visit.  

According to sexton Mark Smith, rocks like these on top of a grave in the Jewish section of the Salt Lake City Cemetery are placed to let the deceased individuals know their loved ones have visited. It may also be a Jewish custom adopted by the general public. Photo credit: Kurt Manwaring

My personal favorite or custom that I choose to do is to place a coin on the stone of the person I visit—unless it my father-in law, and then he gets a banana, a cup of coffee and a coin.

He always had a hot cup for you and a banana.

If you could go back in time and witness any burial in the cemetery, which would you most like to observe?

This one is easy it would  be my Great Grandfather Albert Smith—with  Jack Slade being a close second!

This interview is sponsored by BYU Studies.

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