Out of respect to two sons who died several years ago, Elaine LeSueur has to take gardening tools to the Salt Lake City Cemetery to keep the weeds away from their graves.
She's not alone. Many people whose loved ones are buried in the 250-acre cemetery in the city's Avenues area are doing their best on weekends to keep graves from looking like the backdrop to a bad horror movie.Not only is the cemetery plagued by tall weeds and brown grass, it often is attacked by vandals. On Wednesday, a casual observer could find fresh flowers in front of a headstone smashed in two, with one large chunk teetering atop another. Others lie broken on the ground while some lean at odd angles.
Thursday night, the Salt Lake City Council will consider whether to pay $38,800 to improve the maintenance and hire two security guards who not only would try to keep vandals away but would water the grounds during the night.
City leaders admit the plan won't solve the problems, but they say it will go a long way toward improving a situation many think is a disgrace to the city. Nearly everyone with roots in the Salt Lake area has a relative buried at the cemetery, which officials say is one of the oldest active public cemeteries in the nation. Even Salt Lake City Mayor Palmer DePaulis has in-laws buried there.
DePaulis said he supports the proposed plan, even though much more is needed.
"Yes, it will make a difference," he said. "Even the perception that there now are security guards there will help."
City Councilwoman Nancy Pace, whose district includes the cemetery, said she fielded an average of six phone calls daily during the hottest part of last summer from people complaining about the cemetery's condition.
"I got calls from Reno, from California. . . . People come here for funerals and they're irate," she said. "It was a sad task to talk to all those people."
Rick Graham, deputy director of the city's Parks Department, said the city's maintenance crews are divided into four quadrants. The cemetery is part of a quadrant that includes all parks between Memory Grove and Research Park. If approved by the City Council, the new plan would make the cemetery a quadrant of its own.
"A cemetery is a lot different from a park," Graham said. Crews often have to cut grass by hand because mowers won't maneuver around headstones. The cemetery's southern exposure makes it difficult for crews to keep the soil moist, particularly during droughts.
"A lot of dumb things have happened at the cemetery," Graham said. "Some headstones were put in wrong places. Crews are always having to work around bushes, trees and headstones. They have to drag a hose to water the grounds, but the headstones often block the water, and we've had no help from Mother Nature.
"It doesn't look like it should. We're embarrassed by it."
Graham guesses the city would have to pay $1 million to install an automatic sprinkler system.
DePaulis thinks that is a conservative guess. "It's the same old problem of having very great needs and very few resources," he said.
City officials hope the security guards, who would patrol in cars, would help stem vandalism that seems to peak near Halloween. Right now, only a 3-foot iron fence protects the cemetery.
LeSueur said vandals once desecrated a headstone marking the burial site of a relative of her husband. Her husband bought a new stone and replaced it himself. She will be happy if only someone would water and cut the grass regularly. She last visited the cemetery several weeks ago.
"To me, it was very disappointing," she said.
Helping the cemetery
To improve conditions at the Salt Lake City Cemetery, the City Council was considering:
- Paying $26,100 for a supervisor and making the cemetery a separate quadrant for city maintenance crews.
- Paying $12,700 for two security guards to work in October and from April until the city's new budget begins in July. The security guards would water the grounds at night.