You might not think it would take an act of Congress to create a cemetery, but that's what was needed for Mount Olivet. The land was originally part of Camp Douglas, set up on the hill by Gen. Patrick Connor to keep watch over Mormon settlements down in the valley. In 1874, Congress decreed, and President Ulysses S. Grant signed into law, that a cemetery be built here - the only public cemetery in the country to be established by congressional act.
From that unusual beginning, and throughout its 124-year history, Mount Olivet, at 1342 E. 500 South, was never your typical cemetery. And that extraordinary flavor and rich legacy continues. Mount Olivet is known for its diversity, for its artistry and its poetry as much as for its past.You also may not think of a cemetery as a place to learn about life, but that's what Donna Hunter, honors English teacher at Joel P. Jensen Middle School in the Jordan District, hopes her students will learn on their annual outing to Mount Olivet. For three years, she has been bringing her students on a field trip to the cemetery. This year, she invited Joyce Buhler's honor history students as well.
This cemetery, she says, is an ideal place for them to learn not only about the past but about themselves.
"I want them to see how beautiful this place is," Hunter says of her students. "I want them to see the poetry." She hopes they will think about the lives of the people buried here and then about their own lives. "I want them to live without regrets."
Before the field trip, she says, the students read Edgar Lee Masters' "Spoon River Anthology." "So many of those poems, written from headstones in a cemetery, are about regrets and things the people wanted to do."
As part of the project, Hunter has her students write a letter to themselves about hopes and dreams and what they want from life. The letters are to be sealed and put away and opened four years from now when the students graduate from high school. "It's to be a gift to themselves," she says. "I hope it will strengthen their self-knowledge, make them think about where they are in life."
And then after they visit the cemetery, they will write their own poetry. A "Mount Olivet Anthology" of sorts. "A mixed feeling of emotion/sweeps over me,/as we walk through the cemetery./It is so peaceful,/yet so sad,/to see graves of children/not yet two . . . " writes Jessie Wilde.
"Cool, hard granite,/with words engraved deep into the surface,/locking away the keys of time . . . " is how Kristen Hintz starts her piece. And from Jon Warner: "Kids with crayons rubbing stones/of people long past died./They are glad that it's not them/being rubbed from the other side."
The students love coming to the cemetery, Hunter says. "They're a great bunch of kids, so inquisitive, so excited. They do this on their own time; it's an after-school activity."
It's the same for the history students. They have been studying the Civil War and so are particularly interested in the section of graves of Civil War veterans. They see the platform for the Civil War cannon and learn the story of the missing weapon.
Dedicated in 1916 as a "silent sentinel over the sleeping dead," it was loaned to a bronzesmith who wanted to make a copy. Unfortunately, the man died suddenly, and strange as it may seem, no one could bring himself to ask the bereaved widow for the cannon. It was never recovered.
"Seeing these graves makes it more real for them," Buhler says. "They realize there is a Utah connection."
But there is other history to attract attention as well. Markers of former mayors (Ezra Thompson, who put in all of Salt Lake's curbs and gutters, for example) and governors (George Henry Dern, Simon Bamberger, J. Bracken Lee), business leaders (David Keith, the Walkers, Tracy & Collins) and socialites (Silver Queen Susanna Bransford).
And ordinary citizens, too. There's Mattie Shaw, who is remembered as "A mother/ God's noblest gift." And Thomas Armstrong, who was "A devoted husband/ And an affectionate father/ A genial companion/ And a good citizen." There's Emily Pearsall: "Helped sick, poor, strangers. Respected and loved." And Alice Newman Mays, "Gardner Par Excellence Curved is the line of beauty. Keep the Grass out of Your Borders."
Tour guide Gail Bock talks about epitaphs, their roles and meanings. What would the students like on their gravestones? That gives them pause. No one will commit, except, says one, "It better be true or no one will believe it."
The students have brought paper and crayons to do some rubbings. They look for artistic designs or bits of poetry. The face of a cavalry soldier on the GAR pillar makes an exquisite picture. Another captures the words "soar forever free" from an eagle monument in the Bernolfo/
Bamberger plot. They trace faded messages and intricate designs.
Some of the rubbings will be hung on the walls of the classroom, Hunter says, to remind the students "that we're celebrating life here."
She wants them to think about the fact that every life has a story and hopes the cemetery experience will help them bring personality to history. She wants them to think about what they can learn here and how it relates to their own lives. "Everything relates," she says, if they can just make the connection.
In addition to the artistic and historic side, the students have learned about the practical side of cemeteries. They had a cemetery sexton and a mortuary representative come to their classes; they talked about cemetery etiquette. "Education is nothing more than experience," Hunter says, and this gives them another kind of experience. "They were fascinated."
In all, more than 35,000 people are buried at Mount Olivet, and it is still a work in progress with room for about that many more. A large space is also set aside as a park, a place to spread out a blanket and enjoy some quiet meditation perhaps. About 88 different varieties of trees have been planted around the grounds. Birds, deer and other wildlife find refuge there as well.
What Mary Dawn Coleman, a member and past president of the cemetery board, likes best about Mount Olivet is the diversity. People of all faiths, races and creeds are buried here. "A lot of the poetry and artwork on the graves represent that diversity," she says.
You might not think that you could find a history book, art gallery, literary anthology and public park all rolled into one. But that's exactly what you get at the Mount Olivet Cemetery.
Free tours offered
The history, art, poetry and architecture of Mount Olivet cemetery will be on display during free tours to be offered Saturday, June 6, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. and Sunday, June 7, from 1-3 p.m. The guided tours, which last approximately an hour, will begin on the large grassy area behind the flagpole at the entrance of the cemetery, 1342 E. 500 South. Separate tours of both the northern and the southern sections will be offered. There is no charge.
Special group tours can be arranged by calling Mary Dawn Coleman at 359-3836.