Memorial Day: Its Roots and Meaning

Stephen Lynch, OFM Features

Memorial Day, originally called Decoration Day, is a celebration of remembrance for those who have died in our nation’s military service. Memorial Day was officially proclaimed on May 5, 1868, by General John Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic. It was first observed on May 30,  1868, when flowers were placed on the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery.

Memorial Day is about reconciliation. It is about coming together to honor those who gave their all. The first state to officially recognize the holiday was New York in 1873. By 1890, it was recognized by all northern states. It is now celebrated in almost every state on the last Monday in May.

Organized women’s groups in the South were decorating graves before the end of the Civil War. A hymn published in 1867, “Kneel Where Our Loves are Sleeping,” by Nella L. Sweet carried the dedication, “To The Ladies of the South who are Decorating the Graves of the Confederate Dead.” While Waterloo, N.Y., was officially declared the birthplace of Memorial Day by President Lyndon Johnson in May 1966, it’s difficult to prove conclusively the origins of the day.

Wearing Red Poppies
In 1915, inspired by the poem In Flanders Fields, Moina Michael replied with her own poem:

We cherish too, the poppy red
That grows on fields where valor led,
It seems to signal to the skies
That blood of heroes never dies.

She then conceived of an idea to wear red poppies on Memorial Day in honor of those who died serving the nation during war.

Traditional observance of Memorial Day has diminished over the years because many Americans have forgotten the meaning and traditions of this celebration. At many cemeteries, the graves of the fallen are increasingly ignored and neglected. There are a few notable exceptions.

Decorating Graves

Since the late 1950s, on the Thursday before Memorial Day, the 1,200 soldiers of the 3d U.S. Infantry place small American flags at each of the more than 260,000 gravestones at Arlington National Cemetery. In 1966, the federal government, under the direction of President Lyndon Johnson, declared Waterloo, the official birthplace of Memorial Day. They chose Waterloo — which had first celebrated the day on May 5, 1866 — because the town had made Memorial Day an annual, community-wide event during which businesses closed and residents decorated the graves of soldiers with flowers and flags.

After World War I, Memorial Day observances began to honor those who had died in all American wars. In 1971, Congress declared Memorial Day a national holiday to be celebrated at Arlington National Cemetery with a special ceremony, a speech by the president or vice-president honoring the contributions of the dead, and the laying of a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, that these honored dead may not have died in vain.

Stephen Lynch, OFM, a resident of Providence, R.I., is a frequent contributor to this newsletter. He and the staff of HNP Today wish readers a happy and safe Memorial Day weekend.