The History of Memorial Day

Tarran Carterimage


imageMemorial Day is a federal holiday in the United States for remembering the people who died while serving in the country’s armed forces.

The holiday, which is observed every year on the last Monday of May, originated as Decoration Day after the American Civil War in 1868, when the Grand Army of the Republic, an organization of Union veterans — established it as a time for the nation to decorate the graves of the war dead with flowers.

Several cities claim to be the birthplace of Memorial Day, but in 1966 President Johnson declared it to be Waterloo, NY. He chose Waterloo because the town had started honoring the fallen soldiers before most other places (starting in 1866) but mostly because the town had made Memorial Day a community wide holiday with businesses closing and residents decorating the graves of soldiers with flowers and flags.

It typically marks the start of the summer vacation season, while Labor Day marks its en
Memorial Day is a day of remembrance for those who have died in our nation’s service. It is a federal holiday and is observed the last Monday of May.

Many people visit cemeteries and memorials, particularly to honor those who have died in military service. Many volunteers place an American flag on each grave in national cemeteries.

Annual Decoration Days for particular cemeteries are held on a Sunday in late spring or early summer in some rural areas of the American South, notably in the mountain areas. In cases involving a family graveyard where remote ancestors as well as those who were deceased more recently are buried, this may take on the character of an extended family reunion to which some people travel hundreds of miles.

People gather on the designated day and put flowers on graves and renew contacts with relatives and others. There often is a religious service and a picnic-like “dinner on the ground,” the traditional term for a potluck meal in which people used to spread the dishes out on sheets or tablecloths on the grass. It is believed that this practice began before the American Civil War and thus may reflect the real origin of the “memorial day” idea.

Memorial Day is not to be confused with Veterans Day; Memorial Day is a day of remembering the men and women who died while serving, while Veterans Day celebrates the service of all U.S. military veterans.