State project translating immigrant graves in Salt Lake City Cemetery connects Utahns with history

Oct 29, 2023, 10:29 PM | Updated: Oct 30, 2023, 2:33 pm

SALT LAKE CITY — There’s a lot of diversity in Utah’s history and one organization has set out to uncover it — just in a different way than you might think. 

The Utah State Historic Preservation Office is starting with the end of life, looking at plats in cemeteries across the state to identify the people buried there and repair their tombstones.  

In the Salt Lake City Cemetery, Plat 1919 is specifically for Chinese immigrants, but their stories and names are unknown.  

What’s in the name?

Names on the headstones don’t always reflect who’s buried there due to an early Chinese tradition of exhuming graves and returning them home to China.  


“Folks now buried there today are probably the third group of people buried there,” said Chris Merritt, a preservation officer for the State.  

It’s why Merritt decided to call in some experts to help review the 117 tombstones — locals from Utah’s Chinese community.  

In a group meeting, about six community members join together speaking different dialects of Chinese.  

“Chinese speakers who understand Cantonese, some only understand Mandarin,” said Merritt. “It’s really an interesting discussion of what does every character mean.” 

The Chinese characters can be read in three different dialects: Mandarin, Cantonese and Taishan.  

“It’s important to document what the characters look like on the stone, because that will help us hear how to pronounce it in their original language,” said Chengru He, a University of Utah Ph.D. student from China.  

As they tried to uncover the correct name, the group ran into challenges with the English records which didn’t have the correct spelling.  

 “In China, there is a very diverse group of folks with different languages, different cultures, different religions,” said Merritt. “But once they arrived in the United States, we labeled them all the same thing.” 

Even if the English documents labeled immigrants correctly, some came overseas under a different name to get official papers for entry.  

“They bought somebody else’s paper to come to United States, so the Chinese name and the name on the paper is different,” said Henry Luu, originally from Vietnam.  

Translating the tombstones is only a portion of the work, once finished they hope to visit the Chinese plot and fix up the graves. 


The other half of the work

Hardwater staining, tipping and tombstones sinking, even gopher’s making a home next to the stones show the graves need a tune up.  

“There is a proper way that has been scientifically studied with products that we can use that don’t harm the headstones,” said Amy Barry, the cemetery manager for the state.  

The group hopes to clean up the tombstones in April of 2025, when Chinese people around the world do the same.  

So far, they’ve tied 66 birth certificates to the plat and hope to connect more.  

This is the beginning of a statewide project, where they will visit every cemeterytranslate and then clean up the graves to make sure state records are accurate 

The State Preservation Office is working with our Japanese and other immigrant communities to do the same for them. 

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State project translating immigrant graves in Salt Lake City Cemetery connects Utahns with history