How Memorial Day Lost All its Meaning

For far too many, the upcoming three-day weekend marks the beginning of summer. Yet I hope that sometime this holiday weekend, all will reflect on the ultimate sacrifice of those who have died in our nation’s service, which Memorial Day was intended to honor.

Memorial Day, originally called Decoration Day, is a day of remembrance for those who paid the ultimate cost in defense of their country. Memorial Day was created as a day of national reconciliation; it is about coming together to honor those who gave their all.

General John Logan in his General Order No. 11 on May 5, 1868 established what came to be known as Memorial Day when flowers were placed on the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery.

By 1890, Memorial Day was recognized by all of the northern states. It was not until after World War I when the holiday changed from honoring just those who died fighting in the Civil War to honoring all Americans who died fighting in any war – that Memorial Day truly came to unite all of our states in honoring our veterans.

In 1915, inspired by the poem "In Flanders Fields," Moina Michael replied with her own poem: 

We cherish too, the Poppy red
That grows on fields where valor led,
It seems to signal to the skies
That blood of heroes never dies.

Michael is credited as having developed the tradition to wear red poppies on Memorial day in honor of those who died serving the nation during war. This tradition spread to other countries.

Yet World War I, “hoped to be the War that would end all Wars,” brought forth a new Holiday, Armistice Day (today known as Veterans Day.) The hope for peace was shattered, yet America and her Allies prevailed when WWII ended. Veterans Day soon came to overshadow Memorial Day. America much prefers to celebrate victories than remember defeats.

Traditional observance of Memorial day has diminished over the years.At many cemeteries, the graves of the fallen are increasingly ignored, neglected. In hopes of reviving observance of Memorial Day, and increasing travel and business, four federal three-day holidays were established in an by Act of Congress in 1971. 

While there are towns and cities that still hold Memorial Day parades, many have not held a parade in decades. The 2004 Washington D.C. Memorial Day parade was its first in over 60 years.

To help re-educate and remind Americans of the true meaning of Memorial Day, the "National Moment of Remembrance" resolution was passed on Dec 2000 which asks for all Americans at 3 p.m. local time to " voluntarily and informally observe in their own way a moment of remembrance and respect, pausing from whatever they are doing for a moment of silence or listening to 'Taps."

The Moment of Remembrance is a step in the right direction to returning the meaning back to the day. But what may be needed to return the solemn, and even sacred, spirit back to Memorial Day is for a return to its traditional day of observance.

Many feel that when Congress made the day into a three-day weekend with the National Holiday Act of 1971, it made it all the easier for people to be distracted from the spirit and meaning of the day.

As the VFW stated in its 2002 Memorial Day address: "Changing the date merely to create three-day weekends has undermined the very meaning of the day. No doubt, this has contributed greatly to the general public's nonchalant observance of Memorial Day."

If your beliefs allow, please take a moment to reflect and give thanks for all Americans who sacrificed to grant us the privilege of enjoying Memorial Day.