It only takes a gift, a hug, or even sharing a glass of eggnog to reconnect with most old friends around the holidays, but finding avenues to remember and revere those who have passed on is far more delicate. How should one memorialize without wilting under the weight of a heartache that only seems magnified at Christmas time?
More and more Utah Valley residents are finding their answer at the bottom of a quietly flickering, sand-filled paper bag. Luminaries, often nothing more than a small tea light placed inside a sack, are left in remembrance at the graves of loved ones in cemeteries all across the county on Christmas Eve.
"It's like when people used to leave a candle in the window," Provo City cemetery office secretary Cathy Jackson said. "Now it's a candle at the grave. It's a quiet, private moment for people."
The practice has grown in popularity every year since Reta Tischner started leaving a candle at Salem City cemetery 10 years ago.
Some cities now extend their cemetery hours on Christmas Eve, and others even provide buckets of sand for the luminary bags.
She got the idea from the Charleston Cemetery, where candles have glittered across the grounds on the night before Christmas for more than 100 years.
"Death is hard to deal with," she said. "Sometimes it's the healing balm that people need. When you're there with other people, you feel that common thread between you because you're all there for the same reason."
As the tradition continues to spread, Tischner hopes that a long-forgotten cemetery in Spanish Fork will finally get its due reverence.
"There is an old pioneer cemetery in Spanish Fork," Tischner said. "It was just a weed-infested place with a wall monument with a few names; un-cared for. I always felt sad that those poor pioneer people weren't remembered."
The pioneer cemetery was restored and rededicated this summer by Spanish Fork City, Daughters of Utah Pioneers, and others.
Janene Baadsgaard, who chaired the effort, used to visit the derelict graveyard in search of a trace of her ancestor Nathaniel Jordan.
At the time, the plot's lone monument bore just 15 names. It turns out that the monument was built from old headstones, stacked on top of each other; the aged mortar had made them impossible to pry loose.
Baadsgaard found records of more than 100 burials at the site, and helped to honor them with replica headstones.
Baadsgaard and others cleaned up the pioneer cemetery, installing a wall, benches and the headstones. The DUP raised funds for a life-size, bronze statue of a pioneer family. Baadsgaard said they urged the artist to create something that would celebrate life, not death. Her research showed that over half of the cemetery's coffins held babies and children, so she insisted that a "beautiful living baby and child" be portrayed.
"I can't go there without just feeling incredibly moved, and I think one of the reasons is it's just a beautiful place on the bluff of the hill," Baadsgaard said, excited to see luminaries there for the first time. "I just think it's a beautiful tradition," she said of the Christmas Eve candles. "I think it really gives those that are still grieving a loss an opportunity to honor that life.
"Three of my babies died before they were born. I have a tender place in my heart for parents that have lost children."
Tischner hopes that people can spare a luminary for Pioneer Cemetery in addition to the ones they place at their local cemeteries. She recommended placing candles inside a wide-mouthed jar inside the paper sack to protect the flame against Spanish Fork's pesky wind.
Spanish Fork Pioneer Cemetery is located just off of 1400 East, to the east, near the road's end before it drops down to meet River Bottom Road.
• Matt Reichman can be reached at (801) 344-2907 or firstname.lastname@example.org.