Memorial Day brings some stirring images to mind: the American flag, flowers laid at a gravesite, and the solemn words “Never Forget.” Observed every year on the last Monday in May, this federal holiday is a special occasion to pay homage to those who have given their lives for our freedoms. But how did it come about? What is the history of Memorial Day? Let’s review its history from before its inception, through its days as Decoration Day, to its current form.
The tradition of formally remembering loved ones annually dates back to the ancient Greeks and Romans. They would adorn the graves of those they had lost, including soldiers, with flowers and hold feasts and festivals in their honor.
Fast forward to the Civil War, which claimed more lives than any conflict in US history. The war ended in 1865, and “by the late 1860s, Americans in various towns and cities had begun holding springtime tributes to these countless fallen soldiers, decorating their graves with flowers and reciting prayers,” according to History.com.
These informal celebrations turned into Decoration Day. General John A. Logan, leader of an organization for Northern Civil War veterans, called for this national day “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.” This holiday was first observed on May 30, 1868.
Decoration Day gradually came to be known as Memorial Day, and Congress declared Memorial Day a national holiday in 1971. Originally, the purpose of the holiday was only to honor those who lost their lives fighting in the Civil War. But from World War I through to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the purpose evolved. Now, the holiday honors all American military personnel who have lost their lives in these military conflicts.
Though its focus and scope have changed through the years, Memorial Day remains a solemn occasion for reflection and honoring the fallen. May we never forget those who have sacrificed for our freedoms.