A Moving Memorial Day

memorial day

Riverside National Cemetery (photo by M Quintero).

Memorial Day weekend marks the beginning of the summer season, plus all the fun and good times that come along with it. But Memorial Day is so much more. It is steeped in tradition and history. It honors those who served in our Armed Forces – and made the ultimate sacrifice to protect our United States.

From Decoration Day to Memorial Day

Decoration Day 1870 in St Paul, MN by Charles Zimmerman via Wikimedia Commons
Decoration Day 1870, St Paul, MN via Wikimedia Commons.

When the Civil War ended in the spring of 1865, the first national cemeteries were established. By the late 1860s, decorating fallen soldiers’ graves with flags and flowers had become an annual springtime tradition. On May 5, 1868, General John A. Logan, leader of an organization for Union Civil War veterans, called for an official nationwide day of remembrance. Since it is not the anniversary of any particular battle, May 30th became “Decoration Day.”

New York was first to designate Decoration Day as an official state holiday in 1873. By 1890, most states had followed suit. After World War I, May 30th was recognized as a national Memorial holiday, honoring American military personnel who died in all wars.

In 1966, the federal government declared that Waterloo, New York, was the official birthplace of Memorial Day. Since May 1866, each year the town’s residents have closed businesses and decorated the graves of soldiers with flowers and flags.

Federal employees received three-day weekends after Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act in 1968. Subsequently, the change went into effect in 1971, establishing Memorial Day as the last Monday in May and – most importantly – as a federal holiday.  

Special Ways to Observe Memorial Day

Demonstrate your patriotism – and the gratefulness you feel for those who died defending our country – by participating in any of the following:

  • Attend a Memorial Day parade and/or ceremony. 
  • Call your closest military base, American Legion or Veterans of Foreign Wars post to find out about any celebrations.
  • Gravesite Flowers by JC Quintero
    Gravesite Flowers by JC Quintero

    Decorate the graves of your family members and/ or special friends who served.  Visit a military cemetery and sign-up to participate in their “adopt a grave” program. Volunteers care for a grave by regularly keeping it clean, free of debris, and leaving flowers.

  • Visit a local military museum. Ceremonies take place, for example, at the Battleship Iowa Museum. Pay tribute to our canine military heroes at the West Coast War Dog Memorial located at the March Field Air Museum.
  • Lay a wreath at a war memorial.
  • Attend a Memorial Day service at your local place of worship.

Honor From Home

  • Start off the Sunday night before by watching the annual televised National Memorial Day Concert featuring the National Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Jack Everly. It is usually broadcast on your local public television channel from the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol.
  • From sunrise to noon, display the American flag at your home at half-staff.

    Memorial Day
    Memorial Day Parade via CC BY-SA 3.0
  • Watch cable news channels to catch footage of some of the largest parades and ceremonies that take place in Chicago, New York and Washington, D.C.
  • At 3:00 p.m. local time, pause and observe the “national moment of remembrance” with a minute of silence (President Bill Clinton signed the National Moment of Remembrance Act in 2000).
  • Make a donation to charities that support the spouses and children of soldiers who have been killed in combat.
  • Even if you just take the day to relax at home, check out Turner Classic Movies. The cable channel showcases war-time films throughout Memorial Day weekend.

A Day For Remembering

Overall, Memorial Day is a great occasion to spend with people who are important in your life. Whatever you decide to do, perhaps it will become a tradition in your family, with your friends. Maybe take a few moments to talk about those who fought and died in wars in order to protect us. And that on Memorial Day, we honor those fallen soldiers.