The True Meaning of Memorial Day

May 26, 2011
by Anita Gutierrez-Folch
Originally known as Decoration Day, Memorial Day was instituted after the Civil War to honor war veterans, and was eventually made into a day of remembrance for all who died in service to their country. Today, the holiday is part of the three-day weekend signaling the beginning of summer.

The Origins of Memorial Day

Decoration Day was first held on May 5, 1868, three years after the end of the Civil War. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), an organization of Union veterans, instituted the day to honor their deceased peers by decorating their graves with fresh flowers. Maj. Gen. John A. Logan changed the date of the celebration to May 30. “It is believed that date was chosen because flowers would be in bloom all over the country,” the Veterans Affairs Web site reports.

The first national observance of the holiday took place on May 30, 1868, at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C. where soldiers from both the Union and the Confederacy rested. As the Library of Congress informs, General Order Number 11 established Decoration 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."

According to, New York was the first state to recognize Decoration Day as an official holiday, followed by the rest of the northern states. “The Southern states, probably still holding a grudge against the North, refused to follow the Northern states in their Decoration Day observances,” reports. Instead, they honored their dead with their own celebration.

In 1882, Decoration Day became known as Memorial Day, a day to honor and remember all who died fighting for freedom in any war, not just those who died in the Civil War. According to, Memorial Day was finally established as a federal holiday in 1971, moved to the last Monday in May and made part of a three-day weekend.

The “Buddy Poppy” Initiative

There are several activities and symbols traditionally associated with Memorial Day. The long-established association of Memorial Day with the red poppy flower, for instance, dates back to the 1915 poem “In Flanders Field,” written by World War I Canadian Col. John McCrae. The poem mourns the many soldiers who died during the Flanders campaigns, and, according to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, “presented a striking image of the bright red flowers blooming among the rows of white crosses.”

In the 1920s, the red poppy symbol gave way to Poppy Day, a charitable initiative in which artificial poppies were sold to help those affected by the war. In 1922, the Veterans of Foreign Wars in the United States (VFW) adopted the poppy as its official memorial flower. According to the VFW Web site, the VFW began their own production of artificial poppies by hiring “disabled and needy veterans who would be paid for their work” to make the poppies. By 1923, the program became known as the “Buddy Poppy” program. It has been active for more than 75 years and still distributes poppies through veteran organizations across the U.S. Buddy Poppy proceeds have amounted to millions of dollars for the support of orphans, war veterans and their widows.

Modern Memorial Day Celebrations

Today, Memorial Day is a family holiday that marks the beginning of the summer season, and is usually celebrated with barbecues and picnics. Many cities throughout the U.S. organize parades to commemorate the day, and it is also traditional to fly the American flag at half-mast to honor those who have died. The National Memorial Day Parade, held in Washington, D.C., will take place on May 30, 2011. A map of the parade route is available through the American Veterans Center Web site.

Another significant tradition has been the Indianapolis 500-Mile race, held on the Sunday before Memorial Day. According to Associated Content, the Indy 500 is also accompanied by a parade. The drivers of the race inaugurate the day by riding in the parade along with marching bands and floats.

Tourism is also expected to rise for this year’s Memorial Day. The Associated Press reports that due to the fall in gas prices compared to last year, approximately 32.4 million Americans are expected to take a trip during this Memorial Day weekend.

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