Cemeteries may be places of rest for the departed, but for Delpha Triptow, the Salt Lake City Cemetery became the scene of a living crusade lasting for more than a decade.
Since 1980, Sister Triptow, a member of the Kenwood 2nd Ward, Salt Lake Wilford Stake, has led a team of volunteers in recording and indexing every readable name from the cemetery headstones. In the process, she and her helpers have preserved the memory of some 130,000 individuals.The project began in October 1980, when Sister Triptow, a professional genealogist, was working for the J. E. Wilson Foundation, an organization formed for genealogical work. She had noticed while doing library research that University of Utah students in 1905 had made a sexton index of the cemetery. Curious, she contacted cemetery sexton Benito Russo and was informed that no inventory had been made since that time.
"He was anxious to update his own records and to make his records more complete," Sister Triptow said. She also saw the need, because gravestones often carry vital genealogical information.
Under the auspices of the foundation, she began the project, enlisting the aid of two other genealogists, George Jordan and David Rencher. Unfortunately, the foundation ran out of funding two years later and was dissolved.
By then, the project was under way and had become something of a mission for Sister Triptow, who refused to abandon her efforts.
She sought and received publicity in local newspapers and elsewhere, and through that exposure gained assistance from 227 volunteers. They included civic clubs, Church Young Adult groups, and Scouting organizations, as well as individuals.
From the volunteers, 17 supervisors were appointed who worked shifts organizing the rest of the force. Working systematically from photocopied cemetery plats, they copied the information they could from the grave markers.
"I would color in sections on a big cemetery map so we knew when we had it all inventoried," Sister Triptow said. "We found wooden markers which the weather had worn almost to obliteration. Some were completely obliterated. Markers were made of white and red sandstone, marble, granite, metal and glass. Some were just hunks of cement embedded with spent bullet shells to form the names and dates."
Deciphering the lettering often required creativity.
"On some of the sandstone markers, we would rub powdered corn starch on the stone and fill in the crevices," she said. In some cases, we had to use garden spades to dig down into the sod to read the lettering where the sod had grown up over the information. On white sandstone, sometimes we used wet grass to rub across the lettering to make it readable. On others, we used a thin sheet of paper and a carpenter's crayon to make an imprint from the stone. We used every method we could think of."
One young man, working to acquire his Eagle Scout award, brought his entire troop to help. They found a mass of crumbled stones that had once been a grave marker. They pieced the stones together like a jigsaw puzzle. Using the corn starch method, they extracted the information from the crumbled stone.
Information from that marker and many others would be lost today, Sister Triptow said, were it not for the efforts of the volunteers, because many of the markers have crumbled into rubble in the intervening 10
Among the volunteers was a Japanese Buddhist leader from Salt Lake City and his wife. They helped translate many of the stones with Japanese characters. Also volunteering their efforts were some of the personnel from the Church Translation Services Department.
By the end of 1981, the information from the grave markers had been copied. Since then, volunteers under Sister Triptow's leadership have worked to proofread and compile the information in a form that could be used both as an index to the cemetery and for genealogical information.
"It was something I felt very strongly had to be done," Sister Triptow reflected. "I was asked what I was going to do with the information. I said I didn't know, but I knew it had to be done."
In time, it became clear. David M. Mayfield, director of the Church Family History Library, expressed an interest in the project, and offered space in the library where Sister Triptow's team could work after hours. The finished project will be microfilmed by the Family History Department.
As might be expected, Sister Triptow has learned a great deal about the cemetery while working on the project.
She observed, for example, that the cemetery, unlike some older American cemeteries, was never segregated according to race or nationality. One section is devoted to Asian people, but she pointed out they were buried in that section by choice, not requirement, as there are Asians throughout the entire cemetery.
"I think that is a credit to Brigham Young," she said, "that he would establish a non-denominational, non-segregated city cemetery."
She said the cemetery is considered to be the largest municipal cemetery in the nation, although some military and church cemeteries are larger.
"When Brigham Young came into the valley, he asked Joseph Heywood, George Wallace and Daniel H. Wells to choose a spot for a cemetery," she said. "George Wallace had lost two little babies when coming into the valley in 1847. He buried them up on a rocky hillside. I suppose he was instrumental in persuading the others to choose 30 acres on that hillside for the cemetery."
Today, the cemetery is a tranquil area in the avenues area of Salt Lake City, northeast of the downtown district. It contains the graves of several Church presidents, among other prominent Church leaders.
"It has been a most exciting experience for me," Sister Triptow said of the project. "One morning, I was standing high up on the hill in the cemetery working on the project, and they were having a Scottish funeral in another part of the cemetery. I have never heard anything so beautiful. This project has endeared the cemetery to me, not just because my ancestors are buried there, but because I feel I know most of the people who are buried there."