The meaning of Memorial Day
Believe it or not Memorial Day was not created so furniture stores would have another excuse for the “sale of a lifetime,” nor for Americans to have a three-day weekend. The history behind the day is much more solemn.
In 1868, the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), which consisted of Union soldiers of the Civil War, established May 30 as Decoration Day. It was a day set aside to decorate the graves of fallen soldiers from the Civil War. The GAR was highly involved in the push to build the South Dakota State Veterans Home in Hot Springs, S.D., which was accomplished in 1889. In his proclamation, General Logan wrote, “we should guard their graves with sacred vigilance… Let pleasant paths invite the coming and going of reverent visitors and fond mourners. Let no neglect, no ravages of time, testify to the present or to the coming generations that we have forgotten as a people the cost of a free and undivided republic.”
To commemorate General John Logan, who was the head of the GAR at the time, a statue of the general was sculpted out of locally quarried sandstone and placed in front of the administration building of that State Veterans Home. It was dedicated in 1894 and is still there for us to enjoy.
My grandparents called it Decoration Day but over the years it morphed into Memorial Day and it became a day when all who had died — military or not — were to be acknowledged. Families flocked to lay flowers or wreaths on the graves of their loved ones and it was to be a time for a mini family reunion. It wasn’t until 1967 that the official name was changed to Memorial Day and it continued to be on May 30.
As the older generation passes, fewer and fewer remember the meaning of the holiday and the federal government contributed to this decline. On June 28, 1968, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, and Memorial Day was moved to the last Monday in May, so instead of always falling on May 30, it varied with the year. This gave everyone, such as federal workers, who already got Memorial Day off, a guaranteed three-day weekend. Thus began the custom of using that time to start the summer season off with parties, camping out or about anything except the true meaning. Towns with a strong military presence are exceptions as they offer commemoration ceremonies for the community.
Memorial Day is celebrated annually when the U.S. President or Vice President lays a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery. Do you realize there will never be another unknown soldier in the American military? DNA is collected and filed with the knowledge that everyone in the military can be identified.
Amy, one of my granddaughters, along with a classmate of hers were chosen by their teacher to lay the wreath at the Tomb during a school trip in 2018. The unforgettable memory may have additional meaning since her dad had two overseas tours during the Iraq war. ❖