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Memorial Day – Remember to Remember

Written By Heather Johnson, RN
Resource Nurse, Empira

Think about what Memorial Day means to you.

Does it bring up childhood memories of a long weekend with family and friends?

Memorial Day is known to many of us as the unofficial start to summer. You may also know it as:

  • Ear-marking the final days of the school year
  • The start of the camping season and warmer weather
  • The first bonfires of the year
  • Celebrations at the lake
  • Mattress sales
  • Picnics galore
  • Large BBQs
  • Well attended parades
  • A paid day off of work
  • Brilliant fireworks
  • Family traditions, reunions and celebrations

Do any of your memories and plans include decorating gravesites and paying respect?

Do you know the history of Memorial Day and the significance in our American history?

Memorial Day is so much more than an extended weekend.

Here is a little bit of history.

By the late 1860’s and with death tolls rising from the American Civil War, Americans began holding springtime tributes to the fallen military heroes by decorating the soldiers’ graves with flowers and memorabilia and reciting poems and prayers. The first such memorial is believed to have originated in Charleston, South Carolina, and was coordinated by freed slaves.

Decoration Day, now known to us as Memorial Day, was first proclaimed by General John Logan on May 5th, 1868. A solemn day of reflection and respect. He recognized the need to honor the more than 620,000 soldiers who died during the American Civil War. He chose May 30th as the declared day because it was not an anniversary date to any particular battle. Some historians believe the date was selected to ensure that flowers across the country would be in full bloom.

Arlington National Cemetery

The Proclamation reads:

“The 30th day of May, 1868, is designated 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. In this observance no form or ceremony is prescribed, but posts and comrades will in their own way arrange such fitting services and testimonials of respect as circumstances may permit.”

General Order No. 11

For more than 50 years, the holiday was used to commemorate those killed just in the Civil War, not in any other American conflict. It wasn’t until America’s entry into World War I that the tradition was expanded to include those killed in all wars.

Memorial Day was not even officially recognized nationwide until the 1970s

In 1968, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act which moved Memorial Day from May 30th to the last Monday of May. Making it a three-day weekend for federal employees and in this same law also declared Memorial Day a federal holiday which went into effect in 1971. Many argue that in making Memorial Day a three-day weekend, it commercialized the day and made it less significant and easier for Americans to treat the weekend as more of a celebration and in return losing its significance.

Now, I don’t believe there is anything wrong with this type of celebration. To be honest almost everyone likes a good time. Remember our freedom does bring us life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But for those who were forged into adults on the anvil of war or those who lost dear friends and faithful comrades or those who have a personal connection we can’t help but to having a slightly more respectful attitude about the sacrifices that produce our safety and liberty. Being able to live in freedom is an incredible stroke of good fortune, but the freedom itself exists only because hundreds of thousands of our service members perished for it.

So while none of us should ever dodge a chance to take a break, spend some time with family and overeat a bit, we should also remember why we have the freedom to do it, even if it’s just on this single day at the end of May.

So what can we all do for those we serve in our communities?

Start by reflecting on the history of Decoration Day/Memorial Day and how that history affects those who serve, and have served our country. Here are some other ideas:

  • Share the history with the younger generation.
  • Take time on this day to honor the men and women who gave their lives in service to our country.
  • Reflect on how the memories of the fallen impact those in our communities.
  • Find meaningful ways to bring that history, honor, and respect into your communities.
  • Reach out to your local Veteran’s groups.
  • Personally, take part in Memorial Day.
  • Pause and pay your respects.

Show the world that this day has not lost its reverent meaning.

A simple gesture is to wear a red poppy, a tradition that began with a World War I poem written in 1915 in which the author gave voice to the soldiers who had been killed in battle and lay buried beneath the poppy-covered fields.

Red Poppies in Flanders Fields

“In Flanders Fields” by John McCrae

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago,
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

In memory, with reflection, of my Great Uncle Pfc. Henry Mattson

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