Grand Rapids:

The History Behind Memorial Day

Parades, picnics, 3-day weekends, grave flowers, official ‘national remembrance’ of our dead, the National Parade in Washington, DC —all mark the national holiday we know as Memorial Day; honoring our lost loved ones, particularly those who passed while protecting our freedoms in battle. We all know these facts—but there’s more you won’t read in history class.

Memorial Day is the sum total of many traditions, changes, and tributes over the centuries. From ancient Greek and Roman festivals to placing flowers and flags at Civil War graves, to today’s practices, we see that, despite our differences, the desire to honor lost loved ones crosses all humanity.

For example, The Civil War tributes, the first ‘official’ memorials in the United States, were organized by freed slaves and Confederate women. After the Confederate surrender in 1865, 1000 slaves and soldiers honored Union soldier’s casualties. They made a site for Union deceased; placing flowers at the graves, doing readings, and singing hymns.

During the war, Southern women likewise placed flowers and flags at Confederate graves, and had ‘mournings.’ Many started laying flags and flowers at military gravesas a traditional tribute to the deceased. Later the red poppy came to honor soldiers buried under poppy fields, whose beauty was a welcome contrast to the horror of war.

Veteran General John Logan was thus inspired to push a national day of remembrance. Though Union, he wanted to honor all 600,000+ casualties on both sides; because all American lives mattered. Since we were one nation again, he named the remembrance Decoration Day, after our flag. He chose May 30 because it didn’t coincide with a Civil War battle, and flowers would be in bloom and ready to place at graves—a link to Civil War traditions. Decoration Day, May 30, was accepted as a national holiday in 1890; first officially celebrated at Arlington National Cemetery. However, it only honored the Civil War dead well into the 20th century; until people wanted to honor those lost in the World Wars and Vietnam.

“Wherever a beautiful soul has been, there lies a trail of beautiful memories,” so says Ronald Regan— and so true, whether honoring a Civil War veteran or our great-grandmother who just passed away.

It became a federal holiday honoring all war dead, and lost loved ones, in 1971. The Uniform Monday Holiday Act, 1968, made it the last Monday in May, regardless of date; to allow a 3-day weekend for extra celebrations. However, some veterans’ groups have opposed this direction of the holiday; concerned it will lose its main focus of honoring those who died for our country. The ‘official’ birthplace of the holiday we call Memorial Day is Waterloo, New York; whose 1866 community-wide celebrations led it to be given the honor.

Memories are our common heritage and links to loved ones, and serve to comfort us as well as honor them. Funeral Homes are here to help you create meaningful tributes to veteran loved ones by offering resources to ‘distinctly honor’ our cherished veterans. Pre-planning your veteran services allows you to consult with staff in less stressful times and saves your family financial burdens later. Utilizing pre-planning services also provides you with helpful resources to help you on the path to healing and meaningful remembrance.

Call Gerst Funeral Homes about Veteran Memorial Services in West Michigan. We will give your loved one the meaningful, unique tribute we all deserve. Millions of stories, millions of memories—and all worth honoring.