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Origin of Memorial Day
When is Memorial Day?
Memorial Day is a U.S. national holiday held to honor those who died while serving in the military. It is currently observed on the last Monday of May.
How is Memorial Day pronounced?
[ muh-mawr-ee-uhl dey ]
What is Memorial Day?
A 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, then, is a holiday set aside for observances in memory of dead members of the armed forces of all wars.
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.
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.