History of Memorial Day
Why Learning The History of Memorial Day Appropriately Leads Us to Celebrate the Holiday Appropriately
What is the history of Memorial Day? Where did the American holiday “Memorial Day” come from? Three years after the Civil War ended, on May 5, 1868, the head of an organization of former Union soldiers and sailors — the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) — established Decoration Day as a time for the nation to decorate the graves of the war dead with flowers. Maj. Gen. John A. Logan declared it should be May 30. The first large observance was held that year at Arlington National Cemetery, across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C. The cemetery already held the remains of 20,000 Union dead and several hundred Confederate dead.
The ceremonies centered around the mourning-draped veranda of the Arlington mansion, once the home of Gen. Robert E. Lee. Gen. and Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant and other Washington officials presided. After speeches, children from the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Orphan Home and members of the GAR made their way through the cemetery, strewing flowers on both Union and Confederate graves, reciting prayers and singing hymns.
In 1966, Congress and President Lyndon Johnson declared Waterloo, N.Y., the “birthplace” of Memorial Day. There a ceremony on May 5, 1866, was reported to have honored local soldiers and sailors who had fought in the Civil War. Businesses closed and residents flew flags at half-mast.
It was not until after World War I, however, that the day was expanded to honor those who have died in all American wars. In 1971 Memorial Day was declared a national holiday by an act of Congress, though it is still often called Decoration Day. It was then also placed on the last Monday in May, as were some other federal holidays.
Gen. Logan’s order for his posts to decorate graves in 1868 “with the choicest flowers of springtime” urged: “We should guard their graves with sacred vigilance. … Let pleasant paths invite the coming and going of reverent visitors and fond mourners. Let no neglect, no ravages of time, testify to the present or to the coming generations that we have forgotten as a people the cost of a free and undivided republic.” One famous poem came from such tragedy and remembrance of war, by the name of “In Flanders Fields,” which you can purchase the story of the poem here.
The crowd attending the first Memorial Day ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery was approximately the same size as those that attend today’s observance, about 5,000 people. Then, as now, small American flags were placed on each grave — a tradition followed at many national cemeteries today. In recent years, the custom has grown in many families to decorate the graves of all departed loved ones.
The origins of special services to honor those who die in war can be found in antiquity. The Athenian leader Pericles offered a tribute to the fallen heroes of the Peloponnesian War over 24 centuries ago that could be applied today to the 1.1 million Americans who have died in the nation’s wars: “Not only are they commemorated by columns and inscriptions, but there dwells also an unwritten memorial of them, graven not on stone but in the hearts of men.”
To ensure the sacrifices of America ’s fallen heroes are never forgotten, in December 2000, the U.S. Congress passed and the President signed into law “The National Moment of Remembrance Act,” P.L. 106-579, creating the White House Commission on the National Moment of Remembrance. The commission’s charter is to “encourage the people of the United States to give something back to their country, which provides them so much freedom and opportunity” by encouraging and coordinating commemorations in the United States of Memorial Day and the National Moment of Remembrance.
The National Moment of Remembrance encourages all Americans to pause wherever they are at 3 p.m. local time on Memorial Day for a minute of silence to remember and honor those who have died in service to the nation. As Moment of Remembrance founder Carmella LaSpada states: “It’s a way we can all help put the memorial back in Memorial Day.”
Should American Churches Celebrate the History of Memorial Day?
Absolutely! Yes we should appreciate and honor the sacrifices made on our behalf.
Who do we remember? We remember three groups of people:
- Jesus Christ, for His crucifixion
- Martyrs for Jesus Christ, for their sacrifices on our behalf (Tertullian said, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”)
- Veterans of Armed Forces in our midst, for their sacrifices during war.
Thank You, Lord Jesus Christ for dying on the cross for the sins of the whole world and rising from the dead! We believe and follow You! May Your will be done on earth as it is in Heaven!
Thank you brothers and sisters from the beginning of the Church until this moment who considered your lives worth nothing to you; your only aim was to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus gave you—the task of testifying to the gospel of God’s grace (Acts 20:24).
Thank you, men and women of the United States of America in the Armed Forces, who gave the best years of your lives to the service of our great nation. Many of you are people of faith and character who serve for the love of God, country, and your fellow soldiers, airmen, sailors, marines and coasties. May your sacrifices be met with great reward.
Happy Memorial Day and may God bless you!