Past visitors to this historic town on a bend of the Mississippi River may have never known the significance of the plot of land, located just north of the Joseph Smith Homestead, as they passed by.
But thanks to the efforts of the descendants of Joseph and Hyrum Smith, visitors to this small western Illinois town will now find easier access to the newly renovated Smith Family Cemetery.The Prophet Joseph Smith; his wife, Emma; his parents, Joseph Smith Sr. and Lucy Mack Smith; and his brothers Hyrum, Don Carlos and Samuel, are but a few of the 24 family members and friends buried at the cemetery. The cemetery served as the family burial grounds from 1840 to 1891.
Of those buried in the cemetery, 11 were children under the age of 2 and one was 7 years old.
"Literally thousands have gone by there in the past without knowing it was a cemetery," said RLDS Pres. Wallace B. Smith, in an interview with the Church News. The cemetery is owned by the RLDS Church.
The Joseph and Hyrum Smith families joined together to form the Joseph and Hyrum Smith Family Foundation and raise funds to renovate the cemetery as a family project.
The foundation has raised about $90,000, enough to pay for costs to beautify and upgrade the cemetery. Foundation members, however, must still raise another $30,000 to reach their total goal of $120,000. The $30,000 will provide an endowment fund for the perpetual maintenance of the cemetery, so that it is not a burden on the Joseph Smith Historic Sites.
The project, which began in 1990, started from an idea that Daniel M. Larsen, a great-great-grandson of Joseph Smith Jr., had a few years ago when he came to visit the cemetery and found the gates locked.
"I wanted to see it opened to the public as much as it could be, and I started thinking of ways to make that happen," he said.
Larsen, now the executive director and trustee of the Joseph and Hyrum Smith Family Foundation, spoke with several family members and with a friend of the Smith family, Karl R. Anderson, a former regional representative in the Cleveland and Columbus, Ohio, regions.
They agreed that the renovation would be a worthwhile project for the Smith family, particularly the Joseph and Hyrum lines because of the close relationship the two men had. Larsen and Anderson met with the RLDS president and received his direction to form an organization.
The foundation was set up in 1990. Construction began in March 1991, and the cemetery was dedicated Aug. 4, 1991. (Please see story beginning on page 3.)
"This project is something that has been in our minds for a long time," Pres. Smith remarked. "We have come up here various times and have wished that the old cemetery area was in better condition. But we just didn't have the right combination of factors to make it a reality until now.
"I think it is very gratifying to see that which started out as a dream and a vision to gradually become a reality," he said. "I am certainly pleased to see it turn out as well as it has. It is a very pleasing area, one which will do a great deal, not only to enhance the Joseph Smith Historic properties, but to give people a much better idea of some of the heritage of the Smith family, as well as some of the other folks that are buried there."
Elder M. Russell Ballard of the Council of the Twelve and a great-great-grandson of Hyrum, said: "It will be wonderful for members of the RLDS Church and the LDS Church, as well as non-members, to be able to come to this beautiful property and contemplate the life and mission of Joseph and Hyrum and other family members and experience the sense of their greatness in what they accomplished in restoring the gospel to the earth.
"It's not that we've taken this ground and planted grass and flowers, but it's what we've done in preparing this beautiful resting place as a place for the resurrection of our forefathers who deserve the very best the family has to offer them."
Pres. Smith added: "It already has had an affect to bring about an increased feeling of unity and fellowship between the branches of the family, some that I was not aware of prior to the project. There has been a certain amount of fellowship up until now, but I think this certainly brought about a greater degree of love.
"I think we found out that we can work together cooperatively on a project, not only on a family level, but between the two churches involved in the families. We've appreciated that cooperation and increased fellowship that we have had between the two churches as well."
Elder Ballard remarked, "It's been a wonderful thing to get acquainted with cousins who have willingly given of their time and means to help bring this project to fruition. In the process of giving, the giver always comes away the one who is the most blessed. In the case of family giving, we've drawn together. There has been a bonding develop because of this common effort."
The project will be complete when a time capsule is placed inside the south side of the headstone of the graves of Joseph, Emma and Hyrum. The foundation plans to insert the capsule in October.
Before that time, foundation members are hoping to identify all Smith family descendants so their names may be inserted in the capsule.
"We haven't identified even a tenth of the Smith family descendants," Brother Anderson said. "Anyone who has not been contacted by the foundation could write to Elder Ballard to have their name put on the family list or contribute funds to the project. Names of donors will also be placed inside the time capsule."
More than 200 members of the Joseph Smith Sr. Family organization, one from as far away as Australia, traveled to Nauvoo for the dedication of the cemetery and a reunion. Many came to the reunion as part of an 18-day family bus tour that had taken them to significant family sites such as Sharon, Vt.; Palmyra, N.Y.; Kirtland, Ohio; and Nauvoo.
During the weekend activities, family members met for a banquet, attended a special musical presentation in the LDS Visitors Center and attended the Church historical musical, "City of Joseph." Family members also attended worship and memorial services on Aug. 4.