Memorial Day – History and Meaning

Memorial Day is Monday, May 27, 2013. Memorial Day is a day to remember and honor those who have died while serving in the United States Armed Forces.

“Your silent tents of green
We deck with fragrant flowers;
Yours has the suffering been,
The memory shall be ours.”
—Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Memorial Day was initiated after the Civil War. There are numerous accounts of people decorating graves of Union and Confederate soldiers, and several groups or towns have claimed to be the first to observe a memorial day.

The Birthplace of Memorial Day

On May 5, 1866, Waterloo, New York druggist, Henry C. Welles, and General John B. Murray are said to have organized the first village-wide day dedicated to honoring the Civil War dead.

One hundred years later, in 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed a Presidential Proclamation recognizing Waterloo as the birthplace of Memorial Day.

Vase with Flowers and USA Flags Decorating Military GraveThe First Decoration Day

General John A. Logan, head of an organization for Union Civil War veterans called the Grand Army of the Republic, is often credited with originating the idea of a national day to commemorate the Civil War dead by decorating their graves with flowers.

In 1868, events were held in 183 cemeteries across 27 states, with a large gathering at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.

Memorial Day Becomes a National Holiday

During the 20th century, Decoration Day became Memorial Day and was expanded to include all soldiers who have died in the service of the United States.

Although I did not locate the date Memorial Day became an “official” national holiday, presidential records seem to indicate it was consistently celebrated from the late 1860s.

Memorial Day Moves to Monday

The Uniform Holiday Bill (Public Law 90-363) signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson became effective in 1971. This Bill changed Washington’s birthday, Memorial Day, and Veterans Day to fall on a Monday, and established Columbus Day as a federal holiday, also celebrated on a Monday.

Upon signing the Uniform Holiday Bill, President Johnson said, “The Bill that we sign today will help Americans to enjoy more fully the country that is their magnificent heritage. It will also aid the work of Government and bring new efficiency to our economy”.

Person at Cemetery with American Flags on Graves, Entitled "Sacrifice", Photo: arbyreedNational Moment of Remembrance Act

In 2000, Congress found “it is essential to remember and renew the legacy of Memorial Day…” To further this end, the National Moment of Remembrance Act (Public Law 106-579) was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Bill Clinton.

As part of the Act, Americans are encouraged to pause at 3:00 p.m. (local time) on Memorial Day for a minute of silence.

The Meaning of Memorial Day

Apparently, the U.S. government realized in 2000 what some people had been thinking for years, that Americans had lost sight of the meaning of Memorial Day.

For fun, I entered “Memorial Day” in the search box of my web browser. A partial list of results is listed below (not in a specific order):

  • Special travel deals
  • Events (parades, ceremonies, concerts)
  • Gas prices
  • Major League Baseball camouflage shirts and hats (made in China)
  • Sales for everything from soda to cars
  • Expected car travel over Memorial Day weekend
  • Weather forecasts
  • Impact of budget cuts on Memorial Day activities
  • Recipes

Whatever one’s beliefs, Memorial Day represents an opportunity to remember and honor the men and women who have died in the service of our country.

Make a point of skipping Memorial Day sales and do something in the true spirit of the day.

  • Attend an event that focuses on honoring the people Memorial Day is meant to honor.
  • Great Seal of the United States of America - Click to View Larger ImageUnearth the American flag in the back of your closet and display it.
  • Visit a cemetery and place flowers on the grave of a soldier.
  • While visiting with friends and family, take a moment to reflect on the meaning of Memorial Day.
  • Plant an olive tree.

Notice the olive branch, a symbol of peace, clutched in the talons of the American Eagle on the Great Seal of the United States of America.

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Author: Linda Poppenheimer

Linda researches and writes about environmental topics to share information, spark conversation, and convince people to take action to keep earth habitable for all. She believes our individual actions do matter—it all adds up.

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