Cathy Free: Free Lunch: Hidden but not forgotten, the Pleasant Green Cemetery has lived since 1883

Published: Wednesday, May 23 2012 1:02 p.m. MDT

MAGNA — There’s nothing like standing on the spot where you’ll one day be buried to acquire a new appreciation for life.

Hiram Bertoch knows the feeling. Every day he passes by the grassy tract where he’ll someday end up, preferably a good deal later than sooner.

“My great-grandparents are to the right of us, my parents will someday be a few feet in front of us, and my wife and I will be over here,” he says, walking a few steps to a bare spot in his family’s plot, dotted with natural grasses and wildflowers. “This is sacred ground — it’s a pleasure to come up here each day.”

He pauses and smiles. “But I guess you could say I’m grateful that longevity runs in my family.”

At age 35, with six children at home, Bertoch still has a lot of living to do, which is why he devotes more than 20 hours a week to caring for the Pleasant Green Cemetery, an old pioneer resting place tucked away in the Oquirrh Mountains above Magna.

Encircled by land owned by Kennecott, “we’re like a little island that nobody knows about,” says Bertoch, who took over running the cemetery last year when he was asked by Kent Goble, the cemetery’s former preservation president, to take the volunteer job. “A lot of people in Magna don’t even know that it’s here.”

He points to the mountainside, scarred by years of mining. “We’re surrounded, but we’re not going anywhere. The cemetery was here first.”

In honor of Memorial Day next week, Bertoch thought it would be an appropriate time to share the story of Pleasant Green in Free Lunch, especially since the cemetery is holding a holiday commemoration for only the second time in more than 100 years.

“Last year was the first time we did something on Memorial Day,” he says, “and I want to keep that tradition going. We have about 80 military veterans buried here. They shouldn’t be forgotten.”

Bertoch, a lifelong resident of Salt Lake County’s west side, grew up making regular visits to Pleasant Green with his parents and siblings to weed the family plot, care for old headstones and water the grass.

Although most of the cemetery is made up of small family graveyards, there are also numerous single plots, dating back to 1883, when The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints opened the pristine cemetery overlooking the Salt Lake Valley.

One hundred years later, when the LDS Church deeded the land to a Pleasant Green preservation group, volunteer Kent Goble was put in charge of documenting all the graves with no information other than a small box of three-by-five-inch index cards.

“He spent years walking around every grave and verifying where everybody was,” says Bertoch, “then he passed the baton to me. Part of my mission is to maintain the natural look of the cemetery while cutting back some of the weeds and repairing the older sections. It’s a fine line, since this place isn’t about immaculate green lawns and headstones that all look the same. There aren’t many rules here. We want it to look pretty much as it did 100 years ago.”

Even with that stipulation, there is still plenty of room, he says, to accommodate those who would like to bury their loved ones in the Oquirrh Mountains. About 25 people are buried in Pleasant Green every year, but of 17,000 potential gravesites, only 1,400 have been used.

Although some of the tombstones have stuffed animals and delicate glass figurines sitting on top, undisturbed for years, vandals destroyed the cemetery’s watering system last year.

“We had to spend $28,000 for a new one and it about cleaned us out,” says Bertoch, “but thanks to a lot of dedicated volunteers, the restoration of the cemetery is back on track. People recognize that it’s hard to find a place like this anymore. They want to see it preserved for the next generation.”

He smiles as he points out the grave of his great-great-great-grandmother, Elizabeth Bertoch, a handcart pioneer born in 1797 who lived to be 100. With good health and good luck, he says, “maybe I’ll do the same.”

A public Memorial Day service will be held at 8 a.m. Monday in Pleasant Green Cemetery, accessible from 3500 South and 9200 West. More information can be found at pleasantgreen.net.

Have a story? You do the talking, I'll buy the lunch. Email your name, phone number and what you'd like to talk about to freelunch@desnews.com.

Cathy Free has written her "Free Lunch" column since 1999, believing that everyone has a story worth telling. A longtime Western correspondent for People Magazine, she has also worked as a contributing editor for Reader's Digest.

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