Origin of Memorial Day
Words nearby Memorial Day
MORE ABOUT MEMORIAL DAY
What is Memorial Day?
Memorial Day is a U.S. national holiday held to honor those who died while serving in the military.
The word memorial is a noun that means “something designed to preserve the memory of a person, event, etc., as a monument or a holiday.” It’s also an adjective, meaning “preserving the memory of a person or thing; commemorative.”
Memorial Day is a federal holiday, resulting in a three-day weekend, called Memorial Day weekend. In the U.S., Memorial Day and Memorial Day weekend are popularly considered the unofficial start of summer. (Labor Day, the first Monday in September, is considered the unofficial end of summer.)
Memorial Day is often celebrated with parades and informal gatherings with family and friends, such as backyard barbecues.
Where does Memorial Day come from?
Several cities claim to have held the first Memorial Day either during the Civil War or in the wake of it. In October 1864, a group of women in Boalsburg, Pennsylvania, decorated the graves of fallen soldiers with flowers. In April 1865, a group of Black people, mostly former slaves, moved over 200 bodies of Union soldiers that had been buried in a mass grave into individual graves. On May 1, 1865, a parade of over 10,000 people was held to honor those who died and to commemorate the end of the war.
In the following years, many other communities through the U.S. held similar ceremonies. Waterloo, New York held an annual community-wide event from 1866 on, leading the town to be recognized as the birthplace of Memorial Day by the federal government in 1966. That same year, the Grand Army of the Republic, a Union veterans group, recorded that many of its state groups observed what they called a Memorial Day.
In 1868, General John A. Logan, a member of the Grand Army of the Republic, proposed holding a national ceremony on May 30th. The event, held at Arlington National Cemetery, was called Decoration Day after the tradition of decorating soldiers’ graves with flowers. The date was chosen, in part, because it didn’t correspond with any specific battle.
New York made Decoration Day a state holiday in 1873, changing the official name to Memorial Day in 1889. In 1888, Decoration Day was made a holiday for federal employees. By 1890, all the Union states had adopted Decoration Day or Memorial Day as a state holiday.
Southern states tended to observe their own rites on different dates, and several Southern states currently recognize a Confederate Memorial Day in addition to the national holiday.
Following World War I, Memorial Day was held to honor all those who died while serving in the military, not just those lost in the Civil War.
In 1950, Congress passed a joint resolution, signed by President Truman, “proclaiming Memorial Day, Tuesday, May 30, 1950, and each succeeding Memorial Day, as a day of prayer for permanent peace.”
The National Holiday Act, passed in 1968 and put into effect in 1971, changed the date of Memorial Day from May 30th, to the last Monday of May, and made Memorial Day a national holiday.
The long weekend is often considered the unofficial start of summer, and is often celebrated with parties and barbecues. Some feel that the long weekend has detracted from the holiday’s somber purpose. In 1972, Time called the long weekend “a three-day nationwide hootenanny that seems to have lost much of its original purpose.” Late Hawaiian Senator and World War II veteran Daniel Inouye introduced legislation to move Memorial Day back to May 30, beginning in the late 1980s, and continued to pursue the change through the remainder of his life.
People used the day for celebration or leisure almost from its beginning, though. An 1883 Cincinnati Enquirer headline asked: “Is Memorial Day To Be Desecrated By Holiday Sports?”
In 2000, Congress passed a resolution, signed by President Clinton, urging Americans to set aside 3pm on Memorial Day “to observe a National Moment of Remembrance to honor the men and women of the United States who died in the pursuit of freedom and peace.”
Learn more about the history of Memorial Day at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
When is Memorial Day?
Memorial Day is always observed on the last Monday in May. In 2022, Memorial Day is on May 30. In 2023, Memorial Day falls on May 29.
How is Memorial Day pronounced?
[ muh-mawr-ee-uhl dey ]
Examples of Memorial Day
“On Memorial Day, the United States pauses to honor the fallen heroes who died in service to our Nation. With heavy hearts and a sense of profound gratitude, we mourn these women and men—parents, children, loved ones, comrades-in-arms, friends, and all those known and unknown—who believed so deeply in what our country could be they were willing to give their lives to protect its promise.”
—Barack Obama, “Presidential Proclamation—Prayer for Peace, Memorial Day, 2015,” National Archives, May 22, 2015
“It’s a sacred day to all war veterans: None need to be reminded of the reason that Memorial Day must be commemorated. But what about the general public, and more important, future generations? Do most non-veterans really recognize the importance of the day honoring their fellow Americans killed in war?”
—Thomas J. Tradewell, Sr., “Meaning of Memorial Day,” Veterans of Foreign Wars, May 28, 2010
This content is not meant to be a formal definition of this term. Rather, it is an informal summary that seeks to provide supplemental information and context important to know or keep in mind about the term’s history, meaning, and usage.
How to use Memorial Day in a sentence
“Our goal is to get back to normal by Memorial Day,” he said.Maryland lifting capacity restrictions on restaurants, entertainment venues|Ovetta Wiggins, Rebecca Tan, Rachel Chason|May 12, 2021|Washington Post
“Memorial Day bookings are already up 50 percent over what they were last year and growing,” said Jon Gray, CEO of RVshare, a peer-to-peer RV rental marketplace.Planning an RV trip? Download these apps before you hit the road.|Anna Mazurek|April 22, 2021|Washington Post
The water features in Yards and Canal parks will be operational by Memorial Day.
With spring in full bloom and Memorial Day tantalizingly close, states at this time last year were drawing up schemes for reopening beaches and restaurants to at least a fraction of the original capacity.Is the U.S. COVID-19 Vaccine Rollout Working? We're Not Sure Yet|Chris Wilson|April 8, 2021|Time
The National Basketball Association playoffs were played in the summer, and the Indianapolis 500 was raced in late August instead of Memorial Day in May.Golf’s Masters tournament breaks with tradition and so does a serious contender|Fred Bowen|November 12, 2020|Washington Post
He added: “People say he deserves his day in court… Do we have enough time?”Bill Maher: Hundreds of Millions of Muslims Support Attack on ‘Charlie Hebdo’|Lloyd Grove|January 8, 2015|DAILY BEAST
For many years afterward it was a never-ending topic of conversation, and is more or less talked of even to this day.New York’s Most Tragic Ghost Loves Minimalist Swedish Fashion|Nina Strochlic|January 8, 2015|DAILY BEAST
“We talked about the science the whole time the other day,” Krauss told The Daily Beast in a phone interview.Sleazy Billionaire’s Double Life Featured Beach Parties With Stephen Hawking|M.L. Nestel|January 8, 2015|DAILY BEAST
Gunshots rang out in Paris this morning on a second day of deadly violence that has stunned the French capital.
In the middle of all of that past suffering and present-day conflict, this Cosby bomb was dropped.
The afternoon was a lovely one—the day was a perfect example of the mellowest mood of autumn.Confidence|Henry James
Edna did not reveal so much as all this to Madame Ratignolle that summer day when they sat with faces turned to the sea.The Awakening and Selected Short Stories|Kate Chopin
Each day she resolved, "To-morrow I will tell Felipe;" and when to-morrow came, she put it off again.Ramona|Helen Hunt Jackson
There are three things a wise man will not trust: the wind, the sunshine of an April day, and woman's plighted faith.Pearls of Thought|Maturin M. Ballou
The proceedings of the day commenced with divine service, performed by Unitarian and Baptist ministers.