Memorial Day, originally called Decoration Day, is
a day of remembrance for those who have died in our nation’s service.
Organized women’s groups in the South were decorating graves before the
end of the Civil War. A hymn published in 1867, “Kneel Where Our Loves
Are Sleeping,” by Nella L. Sweet, carried the dedication, “To the Ladies
of the South who are Decorating the Graves of the Confederate Dead.”
Arlington National Cemetery
(photo courtesy of Arlington Cemetery Archives)
over the nation held spontaneous gatherings to honor the war dead in the
1860’s. It fulfilled an emotional need and contributed to a growing
movement that led Gen. John Logan, national commander of the Grand Army
of the Republic, to officially proclaim Memorial Day. It was first
observed on May 30, 1868, when flowers were placed on the graves of
Union and Confederate soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery.
It is not important which community was first to
observe Memorial Day, but it is important that Memorial Day was
established. The observance is not about division. It is about
reconciliation; it is about coming together to honor those who gave
their all for our way of life. It is about coming together to honor our
dead heroes. The first state to officially recognize the holiday was New
York in 1873. By 1890, it was recognized by all of the northern states.
The South refused to acknowledge the day, honoring their dead on
separate days until after World War I, when the holiday changed from
honoring just those who died fighting in the Civil War to honoring
Americans who died fighting in any war.
It is now celebrated in almost every state on the
last Monday in May (passed by Congress with the National Holiday Act of
1971) to provide for a three-day weekend. Several southern states still
have a separate day for honoring the Confederate war dead.
In 1915, inspired by the poem, “In Flanders
Fields,” Moina Michael replied with her own poem:
We cherish too, the Poppy red
That grows on fields where valor led,
It seems to signal to the skies
That blood of heroes never dies.
She conceived an idea of wearing red poppies on
Memorial Day in honor of those who died serving the nation during war.
She was the first to wear one, and sold poppies to her friends and
co-workers with the money going to benefit servicemen in need.
Shortly before Memorial Day in 1922, the VFW became
the first veterans’ organization to nationally sell poppies. Two years
later, its “Buddy” Poppy program was selling artificial poppies made by
disabled veterans. In 1948, the U.S. Post Office honored Moina Michael
for her role in founding the National Poppy movement by issuing a red
three-cent postage stamp with her likeness.
Traditional observance of Memorial Day has
diminished over the years. Many Americans have forgotten the meaning and
traditions of Memorial Day. At many cemeteries, the graves of the fallen
are increasingly ignored, neglected. Most people no longer remember the
proper flag etiquette for the day. While there are towns and cities that
still hold Memorial Day parades, many have not held a parade in decades.
Some people think the day is for honoring all dead, not just those
fallen in service to their country.
There are a few exceptions. Since the late 1950’s,
on the Thursday before Memorial Day, 1,200 soldiers of the 3rd U.S.
Infantry place small American flags at each of the more than 260,000
gravestones at Arlington National Cemetery. They patrol 24 hours a day
during the weekend to ensure that each flag remains standing. In 1951,
the Boy Scouts and Cub Scouts of St. Louis began placing flags on the
150,000 graves at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery as an annual Good
Turn, a practice that continues to this day.
Beginning in 1998, on the Saturday before the
observed day for Memorial Day, the Boys Scouts and Girl Scouts place a
candle at each of approximately 15,300 grave sites of soldiers buried at
Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park on Marye’s
Heights. Washington, D.C., held its first Memorial Day parade in over 60
To help re-educate and remind Americans of the true
meaning of Memorial Day, the “National Moment of Remembrance” resolution
was passed in December, 2000, which asks Americans “to voluntarily and
informally observe in their own way a moment of remembrance and respect,
pausing from whatever they are doing at 3 p.m. for a moment of silence
or listen to ‘Taps’.”
The moment of remembrance is a step in the right
direction of returning meaning to the day. What is needed is a full
return to the original way of observance. Set aside one day for the
nation to get together to remember, reflect and honor those who have
given their all in service to their country.
So what can we do personally in Calhoun County to
observe Memorial Day?
Refresh our knowledge of proper flag etiquette. Fly
the flag at half mast until noon. Volunteer to help place flags on
veterans graves. Observe a moment of silence at 3 p.m. on Monday, May
Say a prayer for the family of the deceased, who
for some reason could not bring flowers to their loved one. Pray for our
nation and all who serve it; for their families, who also serve by
losing precious days with those who are preserving peace and freedom in
Pray for the families who paid the ultimate price,
whose loved ones died, or were taken captive and never returned. Pray
for anyone who may still be held in captivity and thinks they may have
been forgotten. We will not forget.