Memorial Day is frequently noted as the kickoff to summer, with its long weekends filled with family cookouts, fishing excursions and softball tournaments. But our modern celebrations are a far cry from how Memorial Day originated.
Three years following the end of the Civil War, on May 5, 1868, the Grand Army of the Republic established Decoration Day as a time for our nation to decorate the graves of the war dead with flowers. It is believed that Major General John A. Logan later declared Decoration Day should be observed on May 30, when flowers all over the country would be in bloom.
Later that year, in Arlington National Cemetery across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C., the first large observance of Decoration Day was held. The ceremony centered around the mourning-draped veranda of the Arlington mansion, former home of General Robert E. Lee, with various Washington officials presiding over the ceremony, including General and Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant.
After formal speeches were presented, children from the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Orphan Home, accompanied by members of the Grand Army of the Republic, scattered flowers throughout the cemetery, on both Union and Confederate graves, reciting prayers and singing hymns.
Localities held their own memorial celebrations and, by the end of the 19th century, Memorial Day ceremonies were being held on May 30 throughout the nation. State legislatures passed proclamations designating the day and the United States Army and United States Navy each adopted regulations for proper observance at their facilities.
However, it was not until after World War I that they day was expanded to honor those who died in all American wars. In 1971, Memorial Day was declared a national holiday by an act of Congress, though it is still often called Decoration Day. It was then also placed on the last Monday in May.
To ensure the sacrifices of America’s fallen heroes are never forgotten, in December 2000, the United States 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 is to “encourage the people of the United States to give something back to their country, which provides them so much freedom and opportunity” by encouraging and coordinating commemorations in the United States of Memorial Day and the National Moment of Remembrance.
The National Moment of Remembrance encourages all Americans to pause wherever they are at 3:00 p.m. local time on Memorial Day for a minute of silence to remember and honor those who have died in service to the nation. As Moment of Remembrance founder Carmella LaSpada states: “It’s a way we can all help put the memorial back in Memorial Day.”