Making Memorial Day Count

Memorial Day is a holiday that many of us associate with 3-day weekends, backyard cookouts, sales, and the beginning of summer. However, the true meaning of Memorial Day still resonates with a lot of people, particularly those with loved ones who have died as a consequence of war. So what are the origins of Memorial Day and how can we celebrate the holiday while honoring the lives of fallen service members?

While traditions of decorating graves of the deceased and specifically deceased soldiers stretches back in time, observance of Memorial Day in the United States is tied closely to the American Civil War due to the vast numbers of war dead on each side of the conflict.

One of the first large celebrations of the war dead took place on May 1, 1865 in Charleston, South Carolina. Thousands of freed people disinterred soldiers buried in a mass grave, reburied them, then held a parade around a racetrack to honor them. They sang “John Brown’s Body,” carried bouquets of flowers, read Bible verses, and marched. Families can check out A Day for Rememberin' by Leah Henderson for a retelling of these events.

Another Memorial Day held soon after the end of the Civil War took place in Waterloo, New York on May 5, 1866. Originally called Decoration Day, it was widely celebrated by locals, who closed their businesses and decorated the graves of soldiers with flowers and wreaths. The ceremony was repeated in 1867. (In 1966, a century after the first observance, the Waterloo celebration was declared the first Memorial Day by the U.S. government.)

In 1868, Civil War veteran General John A. Logan called for a national observance of the holiday, and suggested that the date be May 30. He chose that day because it did not correspond to an individual battle – he intended the holiday to commemorate all Union soldiers who died in the American Civil War. (In the south, people still held remembrances on different days, often corresponding to specific battles.) Waterloo and other towns then held their ceremonies on May 30, and the tradition continued and spread. After the first World War, people expanded Memorial Day to commemorate American servicemembers who died in battle in all U.S. wars, not just the Civil War.

So how did a holiday with such a somber, hallowed beginning change to become the summer kick-off and booming retail event that it is now?

In 1971, the Uniform Monday Holiday Act went into effect, meaning that Memorial Day and some other holidays would consistently be held on a Monday, giving a 3-day weekend to federal workers. Memorial Day is now always observed on the final Monday in May. This marked a big transformation in how Memorial Day is regarded.

While lamenting the ways that people mourn the war dead on Memorial Day is not new (as early as the 1880s, many people were upset about a shift towards upbeat songs and parades celebrating the lives of the fallen, for instance), the commercialization of Memorial Day was largely due to the 3-day weekend – giving people an opportunity to travel, spend money, and spend time with family.

Many of us are fortunate enough in that we don’t have someone to grieve for on Memorial Day. Many of us also dislike the fact we’ve engaged in these conflicts to begin with. However, I think it’s important that we try to reflect on the sacrifice all the same.

Here are a few ways we can observe Memorial Day with respect for American servicemembers who lost their lives:

Robert M. Poole has written two books on the honoring of fallen American heroes at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. The first, On Hallowed Ground, details how the land was once property (specifically a plantation) of Robert E. Lee 's family and came to hold the graves of Union soldiers during the Civil War. He explains how Arlington eventually became a place of national reverence. The second book, Section 60, relays our more recent losses, as it is the current “active” site of interment. The book tells stories of military members who have lost their lives primarily due to conflict in Afghanistan and Iraq, and his connections with their loved ones, who wanted to tell these stories, honor their memories. 

American War Poetry is an anthology that is just as it sounds. Of course, nothing about war is simple (and one could argue the same about poetry), and the feelings these poems evoke are varied. Some of them are patriotic, others are more critical, and others are moving tributes. We are a nation that contains a multitude of perspectives. 

Another option is to attend a local event. One of my favorite places in Houston is Memorial Park (so named to remember the lives of soldiers who lost their lives in World War I), and they are hosting “Run to Remember,” which is an event open to all in which people can run or walk a mile in honor of a fallen loved one on the scenic Seymour Lieberman Trail, which will also be lined in flags for the event. If you’d like to learn more about local history at the same time as observing Memorial Day, there are several events listed. For instance, Galveston Naval Museum will be hosting a Memorial Day Ceremony with a speech by Galveston Mayor Craig Brown, guided tours, and refreshments. Meanwhile, the Buffalo Soldiers National Museum will be holding a Memorial Day Celebration focused on African American military servicemembers (free if you RSVP).

Lastly, I think it’s worth saying that even if you don’t pick up one of these books, attend one of these events, or lay a wreath at the grave of a fallen servicemember, the way you observe Memorial Day isn’t wrong. Spending some time with your family or heading down scenic highways aren't dishonoring the holiday, especially if we do our best to spare a thought for those who have helped make it all possible.