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Memorial Day: A day to remember our fallen

Decorating the graves of the fallen.
Decorating the graves of the fallen.

Memorial Day, the last Monday in May, is an American holiday that has been celebrated in this country since after the Civil War. Once called Decoration Day, its name was officially changed to Memorial Day in 1971 when it became a federal holiday.

Memorial Day has a solemn side, and one that has been observed by countless Americans for over 100 years. On this day, we honor the many men and women in the U.S. military who have died serving our country. On this day, many families and individuals visit cemeteries or memorials, sometimes holding family gatherings or participating in parades. Forget for a moment the Memorial Day sales, the three-day weekend and the un-official start of summer.

Decoration Day

On May 5, 1868, three years after the Civil War ended, the head of an organization called the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) established Decoration Day. On this day, the graves of the war dead were to be decorated with flowers. Maj. Gen. John A. Logan observed that flowers would be in bloom everywhere if the day was held on May 30.

Logan proclaimed: “The 30th of May, 1868, is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers, or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village and hamlet churchyard in the land.”

But while the date established by the GAR was considered to be the first official remembrance, it really wasn't the first time some sort of observance was held. In communities around the country, north and south, people gathered in the springtime to tend the graves of the fallen, leaving floral tributes. One observance in particular is written about. It occurred in Columbus, Miss., April 25, 1866.

The ladies of the town were taking care of the Confederate graves, and happened to notice the graves of Union soldiers were untended because they were the "enemy." Upset that the graves were bare, the ladies cleared and then decorated those graves too. While over 25 communities declare their town was the first place Decoration Day was held, the fact that people on both sides cared enough to remember is what is important.

By the end of the 19th century, May 30 was accepted as being the official Decoration Day. State legislatures signed proclamations designating May 30 as the day of remembrance and the military issued official regulations for the proper observance of the day on military posts.

Decoration Day becomes Memorial Day

After the end of World War I, it was decided that the day be expanded to include all soldiers who had died in American wars. Decoration Day soon became Memorial Day, and continued to be held on May 30. In 1968 Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, and Memorial Day and several other holidays were moved to Monday, giving some people a three-day weekend. The same law also declared Memorial Day a federal holiday.

Just like on the first Decoration Day held in 1868 at Arlington National Cemetery across the Potomac River from Washington D.C., about 5,000 people gather at the Tomb of the Unknowns to honor those who lost their lives in defense of our freedom. In 1868, General James Garfield made a speech, and afterward, those in attendance decorated the graves of the 20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers buried there, reciting prayers and singing hymns.

Today, similar celebrations are held at national cemeteries and veteran's memorial sites across the country. Wreaths, flowers and American flags are placed at each grave site of those who have fallen in battle. To ensure the sacrifices of our fallen heroes are remembered, on December 2000, 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 says it shall “encourage the people of the United States to give something back to their country, which provides them so much freedom and opportunity.” The National Moment of Remembrance asks all Americans to pause wherever they are at 3 p.m. local time on Memorial Day for a minute of silence, in memory, and to honor our service men and women who have fallen in service to our country. So please, let's put the memorial back into Memorial Day on May 26.

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