Memorial Day was established by General John A. Logan, to remember the soldiers and sailors who died in the Civil War. It was first celebrated on May 30, 1868, at Arlington National Cemetery.
“We do not know one promise these men made, one pledge they gave, one word they spoke; but we do know they summed up and perfected, by one supreme act, the highest virtues of men and citizens. For love of country they accepted death, and thus resolved all doubts, and made immortal their patriotism and their virtue.”
– James A. Garfield, May 30, 1868 Arlington National Cemetery
Originally the holiday was called Decoration Day and this is the term I recall my grandmother and great-grandmother using to refer to the day. Early on I learned this was a day to honor the dead. I remember each year as a child, my grandmothers, who didn’t drive, making arrangements to be taken to various cemeteries so they could clean up burial plots and place fresh flowers at loved ones’ graves. While they didn’t limit themselves to only the military members of the family when placing flowers at the graves, they would make a special point of speaking of their family members who had been in the military and the pride was unmistakable despite the many decades that had passed between the Wars and the remembering. I would be shown photos of these long-dead relatives in uniform and allowed to read letters written by these soldiers and sailors while they were away at war. I was fascinated to read and hear of my own family members’ perspective of what they were experiencing at those historical moments in time.
As I child I also recall watching Memorial Day parades with veterans marching by in their uniforms as we stood by waving small flags or clapping as they passed by, feeling a burst of patriotism. Sadly fewer cities and towns are holding these parades as I found several articles reporting Memorial Day parades being canceled around the country over the last few years due to lack of attendance. A 2006 Gallup poll found only 3% of Americans surveyed planned to celebrate in a formal way by attending a community parade, gathering, or memorial service.
According to History.com, for many years Memorial Day continued to be celebrated on May 30th until 1968 when the federal government enacted the Uniform Monday Holiday Act (UMHA). The UMHA established Memorial Day as a federal holiday to be celebrated on the last Monday in May in order to create a three-day weekend for federal employees.
It seems to me that making the holiday a three-day weekend took the focus off of the original intent of the day. Instead, it became a long weekend for people to gather and kickoff summer with parties and barbecues rather than going to Memorial Day parades to salute the Veterans as they marched by or take a trip to the cemetery to place a flag and some flowers at a grave-site to honor those who served and died for our country.
Apparently, others thought so, too. In December 2000, the U.S. Congress passed and President Bill Clinton 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.
I hope this coming Memorial weekend, you take just one minute out of the three-day weekend, on May 29th and join the National Moment of Remembrance which encourages all Americans to pause wherever they are at 3 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. It’s the least we can do for the those who did the most.