Memorial Day: A History

Next week is Memorial Day.

Most of the country will go to a local parade and then spend the day barbecuing with friends and family.

This day is meant to honor those who have died in service to our country.

Memorial Day stretches back to the 1860s and the end of the Civil War.

In 1866, women’s groups in both the North and South gathered in cemeteries to decorate the graves of the men lost in battle. In all the cemeteries, it seems the ladies had arrived with the intent to only place flowers for their own troops, but ended up honoring all the fallen.

In 1868, the first official Decoration Day, as this holiday was originally known was celebrated on May 30 in Arlington National Cemetery. Members of the Grand Army of the Republic (Union Army) and children from the Sailor’s and Soldier’s Orphan Home placed flowers throughout the cemetery on Union and Confederate graves while reciting prayers and singing hymns.

Modern Memorial Day

After World War I, Memorial Day expanded to include all fallen troops from all US wars. It continued to be celebrated on May 30, when flowers all over the country were in bloom.

In 1971, Congress declared Memorial Day an official US holiday and designated the last Monday in May for its observation..

Today, Memorial Day is celebrated with parades, speeches, the placing of flowers, and, yes, barbecues.

Celebrate Memorial Day

Memorial Day is a great day to relax with family, and you should take advantage of this three-day weekend for sure.

You should also pause to reflect on the sacrifice and service of our military personnel. Each and every man and woman serving in the US Armed Forces has sworn to protect and uphold the US Constitution. That includes sacrificing their lives if necessary.

If you have the chance, Washington, D.C. is a great place to observe Memorial Day. Beyond Arlington National Cemetery, the whole city turns out to honor our fallen troops. Essentially, the entire National Mall between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument is a huge memorial to those who made the ultimate sacrifice.Untitled design (4)

On Memorial Day weekend, Rolling Thunder rides from the Pentagon to the Vietnam Memorial, called The Wall. This group is made up of veterans from Vietnam through the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Along the way, they draw attention to the many service members who are still listed as missing in action from all wars.

At all the National Mall war memorials, flowers are placed, speeches are read, and memories of loved ones are relived one last time. When we lived in DC, I made it a point to run through these monuments on Memorial Day. On my run, I was able to reflect on the service and sacrifice of our troops and families. Several times, I had tears in my eyes.

Honor Our Fallen Troops

Uncommon Valor was a Common Virtue

Am I suggesting that you need to complete an epic looping run through DC to honor our military fallen? Of course not.

But you and your family CAN pay your respects wherever you happen to be.

  • Go to your local parade and stand when veteran’s groups pass by. Place your hand on your heart and stop talking when our flag passes in front of you.
  • Buy a few bouquets of flowers, or make your own using wild flowers, roses clipped from your yard, or by combining different grocery store blooms. At your local cemetery, look for the graves with US flags flying. The grounds crew will likely put these out over the weekend to designate a veteran’s final resting place. Look for undecorated markers, and leave your bouquets.
  • If you have a flag at your home, fly it at half-mast.
  • March in your local parade as part of your church or Scout group.
  • Volunteer with your family or a community group to help clean up gravesites.
  • Visit a Soldier’s Home or retirement home. Often, just listening as someone tells you their stories is enough.
  • Make a donation: Wear Blue and Semper Fi Fund are two of my personal favorites. For more great options, check out this list.

How will you celebrate Memorial Day this year?


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