After 19-Year-Old's Accidental Death, His Big Sister Keeps His Memory Alive with 'One Last Adventure'

“People are grieving with me,” Rebecca Fielding says of her younger brother, Jonathan

Published Time: 01.07.2024 - 02:31:09 Modified Time: 01.07.2024 - 02:31:09

“People are grieving with me,” Rebecca Fielding says of her younger brother, Jonathan. “I feel so much less alone”

Jonathan Fielding was just 19 when he fell to his death at Moonscape Overlook near Hanksville, Utah, on Jan. 27.

The overlook is an otherworldly destination, where hikers can gaze out from cliffs over a desert landscape that looks lunar — and nothing like Earth. As a budding portrait and lifestyle photographer, Fielding was experimenting with exposures and lighting with two friends when he stepped onto a cliff that crumbled beneath him, his sister Rebecca Fielding says.

After Rebecca, now 22, heard about the accident, she traveled to the exact spot of Jonathan's fall two days later — through washed-out dirt roads and terrain “as wild as it has been for thousands of years.“ A friend who was with Jonathan called her to tell her how he died. 

Rebecca could see that the cliffs were deceiving, and it was not apparent that there was nothing holding them up. One of Jonathan’s friends apparently warned him to walk away from the edge, but Jonathan had been an avid climber and hiker and from where he was standing, it must have looked stable. 

While Rebecca was at the overlook, she tells PEOPLE, “I saw eight other people running over to the edge. No one thinks it will happen to them until it does.”

But she’s thankful that Jonathan died on impact — a helicopter rescue attempt was for naught — and he didn’t suffer.

His accidental death initially made headlines, but it’s his memory that has endured in a new and surprising way, thanks to his sister.

Rebecca left a journal at the outlook about her brother. “No one knows that my world imploded at that spot, so I wrote a description of what happened,” she says.

She happened to have the journal in her car, a Christmas present from her dad, and she brought it with her in January to the site of Jonathan's death.

"I was sitting there at the edge. It had been cloudy. Then the clouds parted and I felt something warm on my back, like a hug," she says. "I felt a little better and I just started crying."

She wrote about her younger brother in the journal and left it behind.

Now a journal in tribute to Jonathan is traveling with other hikers in and around southern Utah — Rebecca has already replaced the rain-trodden first one, lost the second and is now on a third. 

Hikers have added messages and left it for other people to find. It can be tracked on a Facebook page, Jonathan Fielding’s Journal Journey, set up by another adventurer.

“People are grieving with me,” says Rebecca, who lives outside Kansas City, Missouri, and works as a caregiver and horse trainer. “I feel so much less alone.” 

As she sees it, her brother is out “having one last adventure, still being able to connect with people and exploring the beauty of southern Utah.”

The only son to an attorney father and a homemaker mother in suburban Blue Springs, Missouri, Jonathan was sandwiched between three older sisters and two younger sisters. The large family is part of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. 

Rebecca remembers the usual childhood rambunctiousness: Jonathan getting stuck following a sister’s orders to slide down the laundry chute, knocking out his teeth from adventures on a pogo stick, falling out of trees and climbing up the basketball goal and not knowing how to get down. 

She says that by growing up in a house full of girls, “he was constantly being dressed up as a princess, and he was such a good sport about it.”

He was the peacemaker and the glue. “He was the calm one,” Rebecca says, while the girls would often fight. “He -

had to put up with all the emotions going around.” In high school, Jonathan became a competitive pole vaulter and earned the rank of Eagle Scout.

Rebecca says they were the adventurous ones of the family, and both became inactive at church; she calls him her "person" and her best friend. 

“He just understood me. I am autistic and I have a hard time communicating with people. I have a lot of weird quirks,” she says. 

Jonathan “was never officially diagnosed with ADHD, but I am convinced he had it and people with neurodivergent brains understand each other.”

There was a memorial for Jonathan in Utah and a funeral and burial in Independence, Missouri, close to where their family lives. “He was very outgoing, and he had so many friends. It was unbelievable,” Rebecca says. 

Indeed, at the open casket memorial in Utah, so many people wanted to say goodbye to him that there were lines out the door and some of the attendees had only met Jonathan once or twice, Rebecca says.

He had a bruise on one of his hands, she says — but other than that, he just looked like he was sleeping.

Their parents, Michael and Tammy, are devastated, she says. “They love their kids more than anything else in the world,” she says. Moreover, “Jonathan was the golden child of the family — everyone’s favorite,” Rebecca says. 

Their mother is pouring herself into helping other people and their father is spending more time on his ham radio, she says.

After Jonathan died, his family was able to access the photos from his camera, which was retrieved after his fall (though Rebecca is still trying to figure out his password so she can see the images left on his phone). 

“He was very humble, and he wasn’t sure his photographs were good quality,” Rebecca says. “He was a super happy guy but also had some self-esteem issues.” 

So she was surprised to learn that he was already taking his passion seriously,running a photography websiteas a side business.

Jonathan first got hooked on photography while doing an Eagle Scout project, and he kept working on it and upgrading his equipment. Rebecca paid him to photograph her with her horses, and she says other family and friends also hired him for portraits and to shoot one sister’s wedding reception. 

While honing his craft, he sold pesticides as a door-to-door salesperson. Several of his co-workers lived in Ogden, Utah, and he was sharing a house with them during the winter off-season at the time of his death. 

He and his friends would often hike to beautiful spots, and he would take candid and posed shots. “He loved taking pictures of people while they were having fun, when they weren’t paying attention to the camera,” Rebecca says. 

After the fall, she got a tattoo made from a photo she took of Jonathan jumping off a post at sunrise, and she says her sisters are wearing his clothes. Friends are working on selling his photographs for use in commercial settings. 

She cherishes a particular image she found in his camera from a trip they took last November to the San Rafael Swell in the high desert of southern Utah, sometimes called the “little Grand Canyon.”

The photo is a long exposure, designed to take in more of an image over an extended period of time.

The siblings had been stargazing, and Rebecca hadn’t realized until she discovered the frame after his death that Jonathan used a flashlight to draw a heart in a photograph of the two of them together.

“When I saw it, I immediately started bawling,” she says. 

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