Memorial Day will occur on Monday, May 31st. For federal, some state and other employees, Memorial Day constitutes a three-day weekend. How will you be spending your Memorial Day weekend this year? In addition to decorating the graves of loved ones, many people will have plans for the whole weekend, to include a weekend trip, camping, boating, and family and friends cookouts. It is also a time for reflecting on the memories, both happy and sad, of your loved ones.
In the United States, Memorial Day was originally known as Decoration Day and was established to honor the men and women who died in the Civil War, which ended in the spring of 1865.
The Civil War claimed more lives than any conflict in United States history and required the establishment of the country’s first national cemeteries.
However, the practice of honoring those who had fallen in battle dates back thousands of years. The ancient Greeks and Romans held annual days of remembrance for loved ones each year, decorating their graves, and holding public festivals and feasts in their honor.
One of the earliest celebrations in the United States was supposedly held by freed slaves, who along with regiments of the United States Colored Troops among others, gathered together to bless a new proper burial site for the dead. They sang hymns, gave readings, and distributed flowers around the cemetery.
Even before the war ended, women’s groups across the South gathered informally to decorate the graves of the dead. In April 1866, the Ladies Memorial Association of Columbus, Georgia resolved to commemorate the fallen once a year, a decision that seems to have influenced General John A. Logan. In May 1868, General Logan, the commander-in-chief of the Union veterans group known as the Grand Army of the Republic, issued a decree that May 30 should become a nationwide day of commemoration for those killed in the war. He dubbed it Decoration Day and proclaimed that Americans should lay flowers and decorate the graves of those who died in the war.
On the first Decoration Day, General James Garfield made a speech at Arlington National Cemetery and 5,000 people decorated the graves of the 20,000 Civil War soldiers buried there.
More than 20 towns claim to be the holiday’s birthplace but only one has federal recognition. In 1966, the federal government declared Waterloo, New York, the official birthplace of Memorial Day. Waterloo, which first celebrated the day on May 5, 1866, was chosen because it hosted an annual, community-wide event, during which businesses were closed and residents decorated the graves of soldiers with flowers and flags.
During World War I when the United States found itself in another major conflict, the holiday evolved to include American military personnel who died in all wars which later included World War II, the Vietnam War, the Korean War, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Decoration Day eventually became known as Memorial Day and it continued to be observed on May 30 but in 1968 Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which established Memorial Day as the last Monday in May in order to create a three-day weekend for federal employees and declared Memorial Day as a federal holiday. The change went into effect in 1971.
Memorial Day became a holiday weekend to celebrate the coming of summer as well as to decorate the graves of all loved ones, not just those who died in war. However, there are still some formal rituals intact from days gone by. All Americans are encouraged to pause for a National Moment of Remembrance at 3 p.m. Cities and towns across the United States host Memorial Day parades and ceremonies each year, often incorporating military and civilian personnel, and members of veterans organizations. Some of the largest parades take place in Chicago, New York and Washington, D.C. Having worked at Fort Knox for many years, I know there were always Memorial Day observances held on post.
Our family was lucky to not actually have any members die in any war but we always decorated the graves of close loved ones on Memorial Day. Starting when I was a child, my family always made trips to the cemeteries to decorate the graves. When I was growing up, there were just a handful of graves we decorated but of course as the years went by, many more were added, When my mother became unable to make the trip to the cemetery, I did it for her. So this year as usual, I will be making trips to four different cemeteries to honor the graves of my parents, grandparents, and some special aunts and family members. Not only will I be decorating those graves, but I will also be decorating the graves of my mother’s grandparents, her uncle, and her great-grandfather. Those are graves of people who died before I was born. I have had people ask me why I continue to put flowers on those graves as well as the others. Well, here’s why. Right before her death in 2014, I made a deathbed promise to mother that I would continue the tradition. So I do! However you spend your Memorial Day weekend, I hope it is a good one for you all.