How did Memorial Day Begin?

by | Apr 28, 2023

Memorial Day

Memorial Day is an American holiday, observed on the last Monday of May, honoring the men and women who died while serving in the U.S. military. While originally known as Decoration Day until 1971, its observation began following the Civil War. Though the Civil War ended in 1865, various towns and cities had begun holding tributes to the fallen soldiers by decorating their graves with flowers and reciting prayers and singing hymns. 

On May 5, 1868, General John A. Logan, leader of an organization for Northern Civil War veterans, called for a nationwide day of remembrance later that month. “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,” he proclaimed.

It is believed that May 30 was chosen as it was not associated with any battle, however, it may have been just because there were so many flowers blooming at this time of year. 

Originally, Memorial Day/Decoration Day only honored those who died while fighting the Civil War. But during World War I, the US was involved in another war, and the holiday evolved to commemorate American military personnel who died in all wars. 

For decades, Memorial Day continued to be observed on May 30, the date General Logan had selected for the first Decoration Day. But in 1968, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which established Memorial Day as the last Monday in May in order to create a three-day weekend for federal employees. The change went into effect in 1971. The same law also declared Memorial Day a federal holiday. 

Today, some cities and towns across the United States host Memorial Day parades each year, often incorporating military personnel and members of veterans’ organizations. Americans also observe Memorial Day by visiting cemeteries and memorials. Some people wear a red poppy in remembrance of those fallen in war—a tradition thatbegan with a World War I poem, In Flanders Fields (read more here).   

Many cemeteries have special ceremonies to honor those who died in war. Nationally, the president or vice-president will preside at a Memorial Day service at Arlington National Cemetery, placing a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns, also known as Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers. In the evening, the National Symphony Orchestra performs a free concert on the front lawn of Congress. Other solemn observances are held at Civil War battle sites including Gettysburg, PA and Sharpsburg, MD. 

The Catholic Cemeteries hold a Mass of Remembrance on Memorial Day at most of our cemeteries. Sometimes we will have representatives from the VFW who will hold a ceremonial remembrance for those who died in war. At Calvary and St. Mary’s cemeteries, we have graves of those who have died in the Civil War, though we have veterans at all cemeteries. We welcome groups that volunteer to place small American flags on the graves of our veterans.