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When Madeline Romney was growing up, her family would gather for a picnic every Memorial Day. Parents, siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins would grab some lunch and head for the Salt Lake City Cemetery.

"For as long as I can remember, we went to the cemetery to see my dad's grandparents," Romney said. "We'd take Subway sandwiches or sometimes my mom would pack funeral potatoes. And we'd go sit right in front of the headstone, where there's bodies beneath you. Quite strange."

And quite a Utah tradition. In some parts of the country, Memorial Day is mainly a time to honor the military dead. Originally known as Decoration Day, the holiday began after the Civil War to honor fallen Union soldiers. In 1971, national legislation moved the holiday from May 30 to the last Monday in May.

Across the country, Memorial Day weekend is considered the unofficial start of summer.

But many in Utah also mark it as not just a day to honor veterans but an all-encompassing time of remembrance. "People here have just kind of taken that custom to anybody who's deceased," said Lane Page, superintendent of the Murray City Cemetery.

That's not inappropriate, said Joe Davis, director of public affairs for the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Washington, D.C. "Veterans Day is for Veterans. Memorial Day is for everyone, including veterans."

But turning cemetery visits into family reunions, complete with picnics or soccer games, seems to be a particularly Utahcentric kind of holiday celebration. "That's something I've never seen," Davis said. "That's kind of different."

Local cemetery officials expect big crowds over the weekend. "We get a lot of people here," said Mark E. Smith, sexton/superintendent of the Salt Lake City Cemetery. "We've got over 120,000 people buried in our cemetery. So on Memorial Day weekend, if you had one family member for even half that many people came through, that's 60,000 people."

Few people visit the cemetery alone — most come in groups of three, four or more. "It gets so busy up here that it's hard to even get in and out," Smith said. "I've talked to people at other cemeteries [across the country], and they don't get the kind of crowds we do."

Doing it right, Utah style, translates to turning cemeteries into a sea of floral arrangements, pinwheels, flags and other decorations. "It's a mixture of family and friends," said Grace Rodriguez, a former Utahn who returns every year from her home in Las Vegas to spend Memorial Day at Redwood Memorial Estates in West Jordan, where her son, David Okusi, was laid to rest. "It's not just us, it's all around us."

On Memorial Day, Rodriguez and her family arrive at the cemetery in the morning, set up a picket fence around the grave, place flowers and decorations, set up lawn chairs and spend the day. And they spend time with families visiting loved ones at neighboring graves.

"We invite them over for cake and stuff like that. They invite us over. It's friends and family," said Rodriguez, who celebrates her late son's May 30 birthday.

"A lot of people, when I tell them what we do, they think we're weird. They're, like, 'Wow. Really? That's kind of morbid.' But it's not like we're sitting around and we're boo-hoo crying the whole time. We're not. It's a whole different thing."

As a child, Romney remembers visiting with her extended family at the cemetery on Memorial Day. "That's the time that I saw my cousins, mostly, other than Christmas," she said. "It was kind of strange, though. We brought blankets and would just sit and not really talk about the fact that we were at the grave. But my parents, aunts and uncles would reminisce and tell stories."

Local cemeteries frown on barbecues or impromptu soccer games — which sometimes happen — but they don't have rules against family gatherings and picnics.

"Just so long as they're respectful of the other people who are here and clean up after themselves," Smith said. —

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