The Meaning Behind Memorial Day

This weekend, people across America have enjoyed parades, fireworks, barbecues, and otherwise kicked off the “official” start of the summer season (or so it’s said). Many of us, me included, get the added bonus of a long weekend.

But how many of you out there are thinking about the reason why you have a three- or four-day weekend, in which to grill, swim, run around with sparklers, and sleep in?

I personally believe it’s imperative that we honor the members of our Armed Forces. As the daughter and granddaughter of veterans, not to mention my many friends and several family members in uniform, I take the sacrifices and service of our military men and women to heart. People often confuse Veteran’s Day and Memorial Day, however. Veteran’s Day, observed on November 11th each year, is a day to honor ALL veterans, both living and dead, those currently serving and those retired, who served in times of war and times of peace.

But Memorial Day is something different, more solemn, and perhaps even more important. It is a day to honor the men and women who have died in service to our country.

In the Beginning

From 1861 to 1865, the United States was embroiled in a bitter and devastating Civil War, which resulted in the death of at least 620,000 Americans (yes, Americans – they were all Americans, both sides; sorry, but that’s my view). In fact, newer research, which includes some scientific data based on better understandings of weaponry and battle tactics, estimates that the death toll during the Civil War may have been over 700,000 between those killed outright on the field and those who died from wounds and disease. The increased numbers also take into account the fact that Confederate record keeping was a little spotty at times, and many official records were destroyed during the evacuation of Richmond on April 2, 1865.

Union Soldiers at Fredericksburg, 1862

Even before the war ended, it’s believed many women in Southern cities began decorating the graves of the Confederate dead. And once the war was over, the practice spread. It was often informal, run by local groups, and wasn’t necessarily widely recognized by communities.  In 1866, many communities did start to hold formal days to decorate and honor the Civil War dead. Many towns and cities claim they held the first of such “Decoration Day” observances, but Waterloo, NY is credited with the first official observance, as it was a community wide, annual observance that was held on the same day each year.

Decoration Day Becomes a National Observance

In 1868, three years after the end of the Civil War, Congress, with backing and spearheading by the Grand Army of the Republic (the veterans’ association for members of the Union Army), declared May 30, 1868 as the first national observance of Decoration Day. The date was chosen because in all those four terrible years of war, no major battle was fought on that date. (It’s arguable that skirmishes of some magnitude happened pretty much every day during the war.) Flowers were placed on the graves of both Union and Confederate soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery.

By 1890, Decoration Day was observed in every Northern state. Many Southern states did not observe the national holiday – and I’m sure you all can understand why. However, they continued to hold their own observances to honor the Confederate dead, and this practice does continue today in many Southern states and communities. I don’t begrudge or blame them. Regardless of who won, who was right, or whatever, men on both sides fought bravely and many thousands gave their lives in service.

Decoration Day in Philadelphia, PA

Decoration Day becomes Memorial Day

The United States’ entrance into World War I actually served as a unifying event between North and South, and following WWI (and the Armistice which would lead to the birth of Veteran’s Day), Decoration Day became Memorial Day, a day to honor not only the Civil War dead, but also those who died in any war. The idea of wearing a red poppy was popularized during this time as well.

Unknown soldier from WWI laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery

For years, Memorial Day was observed on May 30th, until Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which moved Memorial Day to the last Monday in May. The law went into effect in 1971 and also established Memorial Day as an official Federal holiday.  There has been support for many years to reestablish the observance on May 30th, in the same vein that Veteran’s Day is always observed on November 11th (unless it falls on a Saturday or Sunday), regardless of the day of the week. A bill was introduced to Congress in 1999 to this end, but nothing’s been done with it since.

Observing Memorial Day

Over the years, I think Memorial Day has lost its meaning for many people. We’re inundated with sale flyers for stores and car dealerships, the prospect of a three-day weekend, and, for many students and teachers, the start of the home stretch to summer vacation. While it’s all well and good to hold parades and fireworks, and have a backyard barbecue with friends and family, it’s not the reason we have the observance.

Arlington National Cemetery

It’s really not hard to observe Memorial Day the way it’s meant to be. Many veterans groups, like the VFW and American Legion, spend the day decorating the graves of all military men and women with flags and flowers in tribute to their service. But it’s important to remember first and foremost those who died serving their country, from the American Revolution all the way through the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

At 3:00 p.m. at your local time, take a moment of silent remembrance for the men and women who have made the ultimate sacrifice. They’re the reason you get to grill that hamburger tomorrow.

Military funeral honors at Arlington National Cemetery


“Memorial Day History”

“Memorial Day”

“A Brief History of Memorial Day”,8599,1900454,00.html

Photographs and Images:

Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Online Catalog:

Arlington National Cemetery Photo Gallery:

Wikipedia Commons:

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