Relatives and others traditionally place flags near veterans’ headstones on Memorial Day
Memorial Day is a United States federal holiday that is observed on the last Monday of May (scheduled next for May 29th, 2006). It was formerly known as Decoration Day. This holiday commemorates U.S. men and women who died in military service for their country. It began first to honor Union soldiers who died during the American Civil War. After World War I, it expanded to include those who died in any war or military action. One of the longest standing traditions is the running of the Indianapolis 500, which has been held in conjunction with Memorial Day since 1911. Nowadays most Americans use the date as merely marking the unofficial start of the summer vacationing season as many government parks and beaches start their summer schedule on the Friday before. Many outdoor community swimming pools also open on this day.
Many people observe this holiday by visiting cemeteries and memorials. A National Moment of Remembrance takes place at 3 p.m. Another tradition is to fly the U.S. Flag at half-staff from dawn until noon local time. In addition to remembrance, Memorial Day is also a time for picnics, family gatherings, and sporting events. Some Americans view Memorial Day as the unofficial beginning of summer and Labor Day as the unofficial end of the season. Some Americans use Memorial Day weekend to also honor family members who have passed away. Christian Church services on the Sunday prior to Memorial Day may include a reading of the names of members who have died during the previous twelve months.
Memorial Day formerly occurred on May 30, and some, such as the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) and Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War (SUVCW), advocate returning to this fixed date. The VFW stated in a 2002 Memorial Day Address, “Changing the date merely to create three-day weekends has undermined the very meaning of the day. No doubt, this has contributed greatly to the general public’s nonchalant observance of Memorial Day.” Hawaii’s Senator Daniel Inouye, a veteran of World War II, has repeatedly introduced measures to return Memorial Day to its traditional day since 1999.
Upcoming US Memorial Day dates
Following the end of the Civil War, many communities set aside a day to mark the end of the war or as a memorial to those who had died. Some of the early cities creating a memorial day include Charleston, South Carolina; Boalsburg, Pennsylvania; Richmond, Virginia; Carbondale, Illinois; and some two dozen other cities and towns. These observances eventually coalesced around Decoration Day honoring the Union dead and the several Confederate Memorial Days.
Professor David Blight, of the Yale University History Department, has suggested that the first memorial day was held by liberated slaves at the historic race track in Charleston in 1865. The race track, which was used as a Confederate prison during the war, was the site of a mass grave for Union soldiers who had died while captive. A parade with thousands of freed blacks and Union soldiers was followed by patriotic singing and a picnic.
The official birthplace of Memorial Day is Waterloo, New York. The village was credited with being the birthplace because it observed the day on May 5, 1866, and each year thereafter, and because it is likely that the friendship of General John Murray, a distinguished citizen of Waterloo, and General John A. Logan, who led the call for the day to be observed each year and helped spread the event nationwide, was a key factor in its growth.
General Logan had been impressed by the way the South honored their dead with a special day and decided the Union needed a similar day. Reportedly, Logan said that it was most fitting; that the ancients, especially the Greeks, had honored their dead, particularly their heroes, by chaplets of laurel and flowers, and that he intended to issue an order designating a day for decorating the grave of every soldier in the land, and if he could he would have made it a holiday. That holiday was eventually Memorial Day. (http://www.dixiescv.org/csa-memorial-day.html and http://hnn.us/articles/754.html)
Logan had been the principal speaker in a citywide memorial observation on April 29, 1866, at a cemetery in Carbondale, Illinois, an event that likely gave him the idea to make it a national holiday. On May 5, 1868, in his capacity as commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, a veterans’ organization, Logan issued a proclamation that “Decoration Day” be observed nationwide. It was observed for the first time on May 30 of the same year. The tombs of fallen Union soldiers were decorated in remembrance of this day.
Many of the states of the U.S. South refused to celebrate Decoration Day due to lingering hostility towards the Union Army, which it was commemorating. Many Southern States did not recognize Memorial Day until after World War I, and even after continued to have a separate Confederate Memorial Day, with the date varying from state to state.
The alternative name of “Memorial Day” was first used in 1882, but did not become more common until after World War II, and was not declared the official name by Federal law until 1967.
On June 28, 1968, the United States Congress passed the Uniform Holidays Bill, which moved four holidays from their traditional dates to a specified Monday in order to create a convenient three-day weekend. The holidays included Washington’s Birthday (which evolved into Presidents’ Day), Memorial Day, Columbus Day, and Veterans Day; ironically most corporate businesses no longer close on Columbus or Veterans Day and an increasing number are staying open on President’s Day as well. The law took effect in 1971 at the federal level. After some initial confusion and unwillingness to comply at the state level, all fifty states adopted the measure within a few years. Veterans Day was eventually changed back to its traditional date. The change moved Memorial Day from its traditional May 30 date to the last Monday in May.
Given its origin in the American Civil War, Memorial Day is not a holiday outside the US. Because of its origins from World War I, countries of the Commonwealth, France, and Belgium, remember members of the military who died in war on or around Remembrance Day, November 11. The United States uses the same date as Veterans Day (formerly Armistice Day) and honors all veterans, living and dead. In Ireland, the National Day of Commemoration commemorates all Irish men and women who died in past wars or on service with the United Nations.
In literature and music
The Southeastern United States celebrates Decoration Day as a day to decorate the graves of all family members, and it is not reserved for only those who served in the military. The region observes Decoration Day the Sunday before Memorial Day. Jason Isbell of the rock-folk band Drive-By Truckers chronicled such an event in his epic ballad “Decoration Day,” which is also the title cut to the respective album.
The White House Commission on Remembrance has free songs at its Web site entitled the National Moment of Remembrance Home Page. Anyone can download different rendtions of the song “On This Day” by Charles Strouse; likewise Taps. Many others have contributed works for Memorial Day, including other famous songs and poems.
- In Memory of Our Honored Dead
- National Moment of Remembrance Home Page
- Decorating for Memorial Day
- History of Memorial Day
- Open Directory Project: Memorial Day
- USA KIA/DOW Family Foundation (USAKIA)
- Bridesburg Memorial Day Parade Webcast