I don't care how big your garden party/wedding reception/rock concert is. I don't care how many people are on the guest list or how far down the block people are going to have to park.

Mark Smith has you beat.

This weekend, beginning right about now and continuing through Monday night, he's expecting 300,000 visitors.

Mark is the sexton at the Salt Lake City cemetery, which means he's the man in charge. It is no small position, even if the full-time residents tend to be extremely quiet and compliant. The cemetery covers 250 acres with nine miles of paved roads and about a trillion blades of grass. There are 110,000 graves, with an equal number of headstones.

And while Mark is quick to note that "every day up here is a special day for someone," he also readily acknowledges that Memorial Day weekends are special for just about everyone. "You count your years up here by Memorial Days," he says.

This Memorial weekend will be his seventh as sexton and 10th overall at the cemetery.

That's just a drop in the bucket, of course, in a timeline that dates back almost to the day the first Mormon pioneers arrived in the Salt Lake Valley in 1847 and George Wallace climbed into the foothills and buried his infant daughter, Mary Wallace, who died after crossing the plains.

A year later, when Brigham Young formed a committee to find a suitable place for a cemetery, George Wallace was on the committee and recommended the place where he'd buried Mary. George was named the first sexton. And a cemetery was born.

Business has been brisk ever since. "I've been told we're the largest municipal cemetery operating," says Smith. Few cemeteries anywhere in America will be getting any more attention this weekend than his.

Smith's crew — he has 10 full-time workers augmented by another 20 seasonal workers — has been busy getting ready. The late-arriving spring didn't help. "We were mowing and trimming in the snow," he says. "People would drive by and wonder why, but you can't do it all on the same day."

Under normal conditions, the mowing and trimming never stops from the first of April until the end of October. "We just start at one end and when we get to the other end we start all over," explains Smith.

But Memorial weekend is not normal.

"We shut down Thursday night and don't start mowing again until Tuesday," he says. For four days, he and his staff turn into a combination of traffic cops and docents. "We just try to help direct people where they want to go," he says.

If someone has forgotten the location of a grave, they'll look it up on the cemetery computer, where every person buried over the past 161 years is registered. "If we can't find it," says Smith confidently, "then they're not here."

No one officially counts the crowds who show up for the long weekend — who has the time? — but Smith reckons that as many as 75,000 of the graves, including Mary Wallace's, get some attention on Memorial weekend.

At an average of four family members per grave, that works out to 300,000 visitors. And more than a million flowers.

"And everyone is looking for their own 40 inches by 8 feet," he says, citing the size of your basic burial plot.

The key to a successful visit, says a man who knows, is patience.

"Once you get in it might take you a while to get out," he says. "Just be patient and enjoy the flowers."

And look on the bright side: you will get out.


Lee Benson's column runs Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Please send e-mail to [email protected] and faxes to 801-237-2527.