Ned Nordgren, general manager of the Valley View Memorial Park and Funeral Home, says the event with free hot dogs, drinks, face painting and a hired bagpipe player who wanders throughout the cemetery has been going on for about a decade, and is part of an effort to help people smile and feel better at a tough time and place.
"For some people, it's really hard to smile, obviously, where it's a sad place like a cemetery, where we remember people. But a smile can go a long way in helping keep alive bright memories of someone," he says.
Nordgren says that's a philosophy his late grandfather and namesake, Ned Winder, developed after his family founded the cemetery in 1955. He says the Winder family, which operated the Winder dairy and bakery next door, even used an unusual short poem that Ned Winder wrote as they sold burial spaces door-to-door in the early days.
It goes, "Buy our milk, buy our bread and let us bury you when you're dead."
"People still remember that, and laugh and laugh," Nordgren says. The Winder family sold the cemetery and mortuary to Dignity Memorial, but several family members are still involved in its operation including Nordgren. "I started working here watering lawns when I was 10 years old, and have been around ever since."
Nordgren says the cemetery started the free refreshments to reward people who attend an annual flag-raising ceremony honoring veterans, "and for those who hang out all day" on Memorial Day to remember loved ones. It starts serving at about 10 a.m., and goes until it runs out of food.
"To be honest with you, when we first looked at it, it was kind of awkward," he says. "We didn't want to offend anybody. That's why we do it in the mortuary parking lot [adjacent to the cemetery] versus anywhere directly in the cemetery."
It has grown through the years to become a tradition for many. "Our whole family always comes. It's a nice thing to enjoy as we gather here," says Matani Umu Manatau.
Nordgren's mother, Karen, says the mortuary receptionist had been fielding calls all morning from people asking if the cemetery was offering hot dogs again. "They really look forward to it," she says, adding that she enjoys talking to people she has come to know as she has helped serve them through the years.
Stacey Williams, of Salt Lake City, discovered the free refreshments and face painting after visiting the grave of a daughter who died a year and a half ago. As she looks at people enjoying them, she says, "It's a nice thing to do for families."
Williams says she likes even more how at Christmas, the funeral home has a tree where people can hang ornaments honoring their loved ones and the cemetery has a "luminary" on the Saturday before Christmas with 5,000 candles in bags to illuminate the cemetery at night.
"It was beautiful," she says.
Nordgren adds, "The luminary is a way to help those who really have a tough time in the holidays to honor their loved one, and grieve in a proper way."
He adds that grieving can sometimes be helped by a smile to bring good memories of family times together, which is why the unusual Memorial Day activities seem popular.
"A lot of people have it as a family tradition now," he says. "Many people visit a lot of cemeteries over the weekend, but make their way to our park on Monday, just so they can partake of the refreshments."