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Rest in Peace, Lilly Gray

I live beside the largest municipally-operated cemetery in the United States: Salt Lake City Cemetery, a sprawling necropolis that stretches out over a square kilometer of grounds. It’s one of the most tranquil places in the city. The trees are mature and well-tended, the lawns neat, the markers often interesting and sometimes quite beautiful. It’s a place of peace and reflection, which is exactly what a cemetery should be; I don’t want to spoil the surprise ending for anyone, but the dead appear to care remarkably little about the disposition of their remains or, indeed, their legacy in a larger sense. Cemeteries, like funerals, are for the living, poor fools that we are.


I grew up in a suburb north of Salt Lake proper. My first visit to the City Cemetery was on an elementary school field trip. After a brief bus trip, a gaggle of us youngsters were turned loose there one sunny morning armed with charcoal, tracing paper, and a lesson on how to take rubbings. I had been to, as I recall, one or two memorial services, but it was my first real trip to a graveyard. I was struck by the contrast between the permanence (or so I thought at the time) of the gravestones and the fragility of the tissue paper, which – fluttering and shedding pretty shreds in the breeze – seemed like an apt metaphor for life. If anything, this is something I believe even more firmly now than I did then; now, I am armed with the terrible knowledge of universal heat death. Then, I still believed in an afterlife, although with more fear and trepidation than the anticipation of bliss. I think I was as distressed by the notion of heaven as by the idea of damnation.

As central as it is to many Americans’ notions of death, damnation is very seldom in evidence in a cemetery. In statuary and inscriptions alike, meditations there tend to center on the angelic. This isn’t surprising; few are memorialized out of distaste on the part of surviving relatives, and a family laying someone to rest and footing the bill for commemoration is better served by thoughts of the Almighty’s infinite mercy than thoughts of His infinite wrath.

That is not the case with Lilly Gray, a famous resident of Salt Lake City Cemetery – famous, though relatively little about her is known.

This is her grave:


As you can see, along with her name and dates, it simply reads “VICTIM OF THE BEAST 666.” Her stone I something of a local curiosity. It has been featured in Roadside America and Atlas Obscura, and every October, when the leaves fill the air with their spicy Halloween perfume, an inevitable stream of seekers will trickle into Salt Lake City Cemetery. Some of them might be resplendent in black fishnets or a Bathory t-shirt, but many will be civilians out for a pleasant stroll and an inquisitive look at Lilly’s resting place.

I’d wager that the vast majority of visitors have no idea what the headstone means (if anything). Was Lilly the victim of some Lucifer-worshiping cabal? Did she die as a result of evil sorcery, the circumstances of her passing shrouded in mystery? No. According to her death certificate:


…she died of a pulmonary embolism brought on by kidney disease. The headstone has less to do with her story than it does with that of the man who commissioned it; her husband, Elmer (a fine Utah name). Elmer was, according to all accounts, thought to be “quite a scoundrel” by Lilly’s family. The couple met late in life, and Lilly was Elmer’s second wife, his first having died.

Elmer liked to tell fantastical stories – when he was in the Utah State Prison, he wrote a letter to the Board of Pardons that spun a yarn about him being kidnapped by five evil Democrats. He also believed “THE BEAST 666” to be one entity in particular: the United States government, which he evidently blamed in some way for Lilly’s death. In both his criminality and his right-wing, John Birch Society conspiracy theories, I suppose that Elmer Gray was ahead of his time, a veritable New Man.

Regardless, those troubles are mostly-forgotten memories now. Rest in peace, Lily Gray. Your grave is in a beautiful place, and your memorial, garbled message that it is, brings a little spice and a soupçon of occult glamour to the cemetery.

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