For many of us, Memorial Day marks the beginning of summer with a nice, long weekend and radio ad after radio ad for Memorial Day Weekend sales. The history of Memorial Day is much deeper and richer than many of us realize. It’s an important day of remembrance for the men and women who died in the service of our country.
The History of Memorial Day
Memorial Day originated after the Civil War to commemorate both the Union and Confederate soldiers who died in the conflict. Originally known as Decoration Day, people began a tradition of putting flowers on the graves of the fallen.
According to Wikipedia, the first publicized observance of Decoration Day was held on May 1, 1865 in Charleston, South Carolina. Groups of black residents, teachers, and missionaries organized the ceremony to commemorate the death and rushed burial of 257 Union soldiers who died at the Charleston Race Course during their time as prisoners of war there, held by the Confederate Army. This event was covered in regional and national newspapers.
A conflicting account of the history of Memorial Day comes from New York, where General John Logan, the national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, proclaimed May 5, 1868 as the official day of observance. The tradition of placing flowers on the graves of the fallen took place there, also.
Other “Decoration Day” traditions grew throughout the country, and it’s not truly known today where the idea behind Memorial Day truly began. The term “Memorial Day” was first used in 1882, although it did not become common until after World War II. Memorial Day became the official title of the holiday in 1967. On June 28, 1968, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act , and Memorial Day was now observed on the last Monday in May. This change hasn’t been without controversy, as some believe making the holiday a three-day weekend has diminished its meaning.
The Flag Tradition
On Memorial Day, the American flag is raised to full-staff, and then lowered to half-staff. It remains in the half-staff position until noon, and then raised to full-staff again.
The half-staff position is in memory of the more than one million men and women who have given their lives in service to the United States. At noon, the flag is raised again to full-staff, in a gesture that indicates the resolve not to allow their sacrifice be in vain.
In addition to the special flag ceremony, volunteers traditionally place American flags on each gravesite. Some of the most stunning images of the human cost of war come from photographs taken at sunset on Memorial Day at national cemeteries throughout the country.
Why Poppy Flowers?
You may see poppy flowers in addition to American flags decorating the headstones of our fallen military. The tradition of the poppy flower stems from a poem written by Colonel John McCrae, a surgeon from Canada who fought in World War I. His poem, In Flanders Fields brought to mind the striking contrast between the rows of graves and the seemingly bright and beautiful flowers blooming between them. The poppy has become known as the “Flower of Remembrance.” It’s one of my favorite poems:
In Flanders Fields by John McCrae
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.
Memorial Day in Portland
Locally, the Willamette National Cemetery is where the largest observance of the holiday takes place. Wherever you may be at that time, take a moment to honor the sacrifices of so many. Bringing meaning back to Memorial Day not only honors our history as a country, but our collective gratitude for those who paid the ultimate price for the freedoms we enjoy. Hopefully, learning a little about the history of Memorial Day will help us all make a deeper connection to the holiday.