Memorial Day

Posted by on May 24, 2017 in United States

For many of us, Memorial Day signals the unofficial start of summer. However, there is more to this holiday than swimming pools, picnics, and backyard barbeques. Here, btw takes a look at how Memorial Day began and why it is still significant today.

U.S. Army Photo by Sgt. Jose A. Torres Jr.

President Obama lays wreath at Tomb of the Unknowns

What Is It?

Memorial Day is a day of remembrance for military personnel who have died in service of the United States.


Memorial Day began as Decoration Day in May 1868, when General John A. Logan, the leader of a veterans’ group called the Grand Army of the Republic, proclaimed that May 30 should become a national day for commemoration of all of the soldiers who had recently died during the Civil War. It was called Decoration Day because Logan urged all Americans to decorate the graves of fallen soldiers with flowers. Historians are unclear about why May 30 was chosen as the date. Some say it was because May 30 was one of the few days that wasn’t the anniversary of a Civil War battle, while others argue that the date was chosen to be sure that flowers would be blooming.

The Decoration Day movement caught on quickly, with more than 27 states participating in some kind of ceremony the first year it was held. On the first Decoration Day, General James Garfield made a speech at Arlington National Cemetery, and 5,000 people decorated the graves of the 20,000 Civil War soldiers (both Union and Confederate) who were buried there.

In the years that followed, Decoration Day was spent recognizing only those soldiers fallen during the Civil War. When the U.S. entered World War I, however, the holiday was expanded to include soldiers killed in all US wars and conflicts. (Up until then, the Southern states commemorated their fallen soldiers on a different day.) Memorial Day didn’t become an official national holiday until 1971. The Uniform Monday Holiday Act of 1968 moved Memorial Day from its traditional May 30 date to the last Monday in May.

How It Is Celebrated Today

Whether your family celebrates Memorial Day by hosting a cookout or attending opening day at the local pool, certain formal rituals still exist for observing the day. The American flag should be flown at half-mast until noon, then raised to the top. Also, in accordance with legislation passed in 2000, all Americans are supposed to pause voluntarily for a National Moment of Remembrance at 3:00pm local time, recognizing the moment either with silence, or by listening to “Taps.” Other Americans choose to honor the day by visiting cemeteries or memorials, attending parades, or by wearing red poppies to show remembrance.

What Do You Think? Some veterans and others have argued that it is disrespectful to change the observation of Memorial Day from the traditional May 30 to the last Monday in May, and that the three-day weekend makes the holiday more about the unofficial start of summer than about its original intentions of the holiday. Do you agree or disagree? Why? Write a short letter to the editor in which you argue that Memorial Day should be returned to May 30 or kept as it is presently. Remember to give reasons to support your opinion.