Engulfed by sunburned cheatgrass, mostly bare of trees and surrounded by a copper-mining enterprise that has sustained the west end of the Salt Lake Valley for generations, the Pleasant Green Cemetery looks and feels much as it did when its first burial took place in 1883.
It is one of the last cemeteries in the state to allow the dead to enter the ground in receptacles other than caskets. A year and a half ago, one person was buried in a cardboard box. And, unlike most cemeteries, there is no stipulation requiring concrete vaults to prevent the ground from settling around caskets.
Those with loved ones lying in the cemetery maintain their own plots, and can do much to honor their dead: They can pour concrete around the grave sites, erect iron and cinderblock fences, place benches and chairs, and plant trees. And on the other hand, as evidenced by some long-forgotten graves covered over by grass, the living can do as little as they'd like.
This freedom of expression in disposing of and honoring the dead is what makes the Pleasant Green Cemetery a fiercely beloved 8-acre patch of ground on the outskirts of Magna, where 3500 South terminates at a ribbon of railroad track, and all the land—with the exception of the cemetery—belongs to mining magnates.
The cemetery was operated for a century by a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints ward before being handed over to a cemetery volunteer, who ran it for nearly three decades before handing it off to another volunteer. Now it has become embroiled in a controversy pitting plot owners and other community members against Hiram Bertoch, the cemetery's most recent caretaker.
Mismanagement, lack of transparency and absence of communication are some of the complaints that have flown against the cemetery. This controversy made its way onto the pages of The Magna Times in May when the customary American flags failed to be placed on the grounds.
"My concern as a citizen is that the flags weren't up on Memorial Day," says Richard Elliott, co-publisher of The Magna Times. "That just really ticked me off."
But the crux of the controversy seems to hinge on how Bertoch, who took the reins of the cemetery five years ago, has managed the inner workings of the Pleasant Green Cemetery Preservation and Development Association, which supposedly runs the place.
The association has a 35-page list of bylaws on its website that currently stipulates that the board of trustees contain eight members. Documents filed with the state of Utah show that—in addition to Bertoch, who is the board president—other members include his wife, Anna Bertoch; his mother, Judy Bertoch; and his father, Henry Bertoch. On July 1, a person named Hannah Bertoch was listed as the board's director, but later that afternoon, she had been removed from the list. According to Hiram, the woman was a distant relative whose address on the state form was the same as his and his wife's. The other four board members include people who have multiple generations buried in the cemetery, he says.
Fanning the flames of distrust against Bertoch is his unwillingness to tell people who is on the board. In an interview with City Weekly, he declined to name its members, saying the board had voted to remain anonymous.
Jim Nicholes, a longtime cemetery volunteer whose parents and grandparents are buried at Pleasant Green, has become the most vocal critic of Bertoch's management.
At one time, Nicholes, who donated a flagpole and has completed numerous back-breaking tasks at the cemetery over the years, seemed poised to take the reins from Bertoch. But Nicholes says he declined Bertoch's offer to join the board and take over the cemetery when it became clear that Bertoch wouldn't let him get hold of the cemetery's books.
"He turned everything over but the books," says Nicholes. "He wants me to do all the work, but he don't want me to see the books. I don't really want the cemetery. I just want somebody with more transparency."
Bertoch, though, says his disagreement with Nicholes came to a boil when he made it clear that Nicholes wouldn't be running the cemetery; the board would. And if Nicholes wanted access to the books, all he needed to do was take Bertoch up on his offer to join the board. The board, Bertoch says, is the only entity that can look at the cemetery's finances.
"That is inappropriate for them to expect to see everything," Bertoch says. "The individual who's saying that we're not financially transparent was invited to be on the board."
The board, Bertoch says, meets once per year. According to its bylaws, the meeting must take place before Memorial Day.
According to Bertoch, the cemetery, far from being mismanaged, is being managed better than ever. He says hundreds of volunteers show up each year to work on projects, and a pair of laborers and grave diggers, ages 18 and 21, are hard workers.
But there is one key area where Bertoch takes particular pride: The cemetery, he says, will never fall into the hands of a corporation or funeral home because the board has taken measures to ensure its independent future.
"I personally will take great satisfaction in that the cemetery will outlast me, and no private corporation will ever get its hands on it," he says.
This may provide satisfaction to Bertoch, but it provides little comfort to Nicholes and other critics who feel that Bertoch is the problem, not the solution.
Todd Richards, a member of the Magna Town Council, says residents have expressed frustration over Bertoch's failure to respond to queries about plot purchases, as well as his refusal to disclose who serves on the board.
"There's a board of directors, but he won't tell who's on the board of directors," Richards says. "I know people have had a hard time getting a hold of him to buy plots for people. At this point, it's been kind of a mess."
Rick Zern, a funeral director at the Peel Funeral Home in Magna, says that although the funeral home has no involvement with the cemetery, it often receives complaints from frustrated residents.
Zern says the ability of a funeral-home director to get along well with a cemetery is integral to ensuring a smooth burial and funeral experience for the bereaved. But in the case of Pleasant Green, this "doesn't happen, because they put roadblocks up for us so that we can't help the families in need."
Chief among these roadblocks, and high on the list of complaints from residents, Zern says, is the inability to reach Bertoch when he's needed.
Bertoch, though, insists that he can be reached. And he says he's willing to meet with critics any time—in person or by telephone. He points out that his position at the cemetery is largely voluntary. The association brings in $20,000 in a good year, he says—all of which is pumped back into the cemetery.
The veil of secrecy that Bertoch uses to run the cemetery, and the inability to get answers to their questions, though, is what seems to irk Nicholes and other critics most.
As he sat last week near the graves of his parents, Nicholes noted that Bertoch likes to say that the cemetery is owned by the families buried there—a stipulation that would rank Nicholes, who has several generations of ancestors buried there, high on the list of being kept in the loop.
"All I really want from him is to do the job and be accountable to the public," Nicholes says. "All I want is accountability."