The History Of Memorial Day In The US


Nowadays it seems like Memorial Day has lost its original meaning and rather than a day of observance, it has become a day of celebration. Instead of a day with solemn parades, speeches, and cook outs with close family and friends, the long three day weekend is now used by many as an excuse for start of summer sales, barbecues, and trips to the beach. However, there are still many US citizens, especially those who serve (or have served) in the armed forces or know of someone who has served, for whom this long weekend is a much more somber event. For them, it is a time to stop and remember those who died fighting for the freedom that all US citizens benefit from.

Memorial Day itself was first observed after the Civil War to honor the many thousands of men who died fighting. While the exact origins of Memorial Day are not known, it is known that it is derived from Decoration Day, which was first celebrated on the 30th of May, 1868 at Arlington Cemetery when decorations were placed on the graves of the 20,000 soldiers, both Union and Confederate, who were buried there. With the National Holiday Act of 1971, Memorial Day was officially relegated to the last Monday in May each year and serves as a day to honor all US citizens who died fighting, similar to Remembrance Day, which is celebrated in other countries.

In an attempt to remind citizens of the true meaning of the day, President Bill Clinton passed the “National Moment of Remembrance” resolution in 2000, which called for everyone to pause for a moment of silence at 3 pm on Memorial Day. President Trump has also asked that flags be flown at half-staff until noon. Hopefully, these two acts will help citizens to remember that the day off is not meant for celebrations, barbecues and shopping, but rather as a time to reflect on the ultimate sacrifice that more than a million men and women have made while fighting in wars overseas and during the American Civil War, which still accounts for the majority of US lives lost during a war. It is also a good day to show our respect for those who did return home alive, but now carry with them the burden of what they experienced and witnessed while serving overseas (in addition to Veteran’s Day, which is on the 11th of November each year). For more information on how many US citizens died while fighting, you can visit these sites:

I encourage anyone in the US to spend at least part of Memorial Day watching a parade, listening to a speech, or visiting the grave of someone who died while serving in the armed forces.

Image of Memorial Day at Arlington Cemetery via Wikimedia Commons

So... what do you think? Please leave me a comment.


  • debcc: Thank you, Vale, for this reminder. Memorial Day is a solemn day of remembrance of those that made the ultimate sacrifice by giving their lives for this country. Yes, it has become a holiday (and shopping day) for many but there are still those of us who remember the true reason for this day.
  • Red Clay: 60 years ago Memorial Day wasn’t "celebrated", it was "observed". It was a solemn day. Yes there were parades, but they were low key affairs, followed by speeches and public prayers. There were also "cook outs".
    My Dad was a veteran of Iwo Jima, Okinawa and Leyte Beach. He was also a member of a small town Brass Band, military type. Most of the other members were also Vets.
    As a child I well remember those Memorial Days
    . After the parade, Dad and others would gather at the monument with the names of those who served, and point out those who didn’t come home.
    As time went on and we started losing the guys who did come home, the remembrance became more personal. The WWI vets were being lost quickly, my Grandfather was a vet of the MEF.
    "Marine Exped. Force".
    Memorial Day now has many different meanings, owing to many different wars and police actions.
    For me, it’s very personal. Dad passed 2 years ago at 93. This is the 2nd memorial day without him.
  • Vale: Thank you for sharing that
  • Oreo1: Wow! This is good info for especially the younger crowd who may not understand!! Well put!
  • jade: I was always amazed how different the American memorial day is from our day. I believe it has to do with size and compulsory enlistment. Almost every Israeli is connected to others who were or will be in the army. For example, I was in the army, so was my husband. 2 men of our family are still in the army as professionals, my daughters and their friends are going to be in the army in the coming years. Memorial day has a special meaning for us because we knew these people who fought for us, we know others who risk their lives right now. I suppose that since the American army became professional the fear and the grief is not known and common as it was.
  • Brian Russell: Memorial day is very similar to Rememberance day or Armistice day here in the UK. It is observed on the Sunday closest to November 11th. Other people call it Poppy day too.
  • Taylor: Well said Vale and a good reminder of what Memorial Day should truly mean. I hope that my American friends were both inspired and humbled by the enormous sacrifices your service men and woman have made so that you continue to enjoy the blessings of freedom.
    As a Canadian, we honour our fallen soldiers on Remembrance Day, November 11th, and observe two minutes of silence at 11:00 a.m. You’ll find many Canadians wearing red poppies beginning anywhere from November 1st to well after November 11th.
    The red poppy is designed to look like a ‘field poppy,’ inspired by the World War I poem, "In Flanders Fields." and is usually pinned to the lapel of your coat, or close to your heart.
    In Flanders Fields

    by Canadian John McCrae, May 1915
    In Flanders fields the poppies blow
    Between the crosses, row on row,
    That mark our place; and in the sky
    The larks, still bravely singing, fly
    Scarce heard amid the guns below.
    We are the Dead. Short days ago
    We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
    Loved and were loved, and now we lie
    In Flanders fields.
    Take up our quarrel with the foe:
    To you from failing hands we throw
    The torch; be yours to hold it high.
    If ye break faith with us who die
    We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
    In Flanders fields.
    History of "Flanders Fields:"
    During the early days of the Second Battle of Ypres a young Canadian artillery officer, Lieutenant Alexis Helmer, was killed on 2nd May, 1915 in the gun positions near Ypres. An exploding German artillery shell landed near him. He was serving in the same Canadian artillery unit as a friend of his, the Canadian military doctor and artillery commander Major John McCrae.
    As the brigade doctor, John McCrae was asked to conduct the burial service for Alexis because the chaplain had been called away somewhere else on duty that evening. It is believed that later that evening, after the burial, John began the draft for his now famous poem “In Flanders Fields”.
  • Vale: Thank you all for the comments!
    Jade, I agree, when I was living in Israel I was surprised when everyone stopped everything they were doing, including driving on the highway and paused for moment of silence. I think the reason it’s not done in the US is that less and less people are directly connected to the military like you said, but hopefully like Red Clay mentioned, people will start to observe the day again and not celebrate it.
    Taylor, I read something about the poppies in connection with Moina Michael who was inspired by In Flanders Fields and wrote "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."
    I’m not sure if it is true, but the article I read said that she was the first to wear a poppy and started making poppies to sell on Memorial Day to benefit people in the service.
  • Holden Williams: My family still honors the traditional intent of Labor Day.
  • Vale: That’s nice to know that some people still do!

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