Memorial Day - Informational Text and Activity Pack

Memorial Day

Celebrated on the last Monday in May, Memorial Day honors those who have died while serving in the armed forces. Memorial Day should not be confused with Veterans Day which is celebrated in November and honors all who have served in the United States’ military.

Decoration Day

Originally known as Decoration Day, Memorial Day was created following the end of the Civil War (1861-1865). More American lives were lost in the Civil War than in any other single conflict before or since. So many lives were claimed (approximately 600,000) that national cemeteries were created in which to bury the dead. By the late 1860s Americans in various towns and cities had begun holding springtime tributes to these fallen soldiers, decorating their graves with flowers and reciting prayers.

Calling for a national day of remembrance in 1868, General John A. Logan proclaimed: “The 30th 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.” The date of May 30 was chosen because it was not the anniversary of any particular battle. Logan called the day of remembrance ‘Decoration Day’. On the first Decoration Day, future president, James A. Garfield made a speech at Arlington National Cemetery where participants decorated the graves of the 20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers buried there. Many Northern states held similar commemorative events. The first state to officially recognize the holiday was New York in 1873. By 1890 each of these states made Decoration Day an official state holiday. Many Southern states continued to honor their dead on separate days until after World War I.

Decoration Day Becomes Memorial Day

In 1882, the name ‘Memorial Day’ was used for the first time. During World War I (1914-1918) the United States found itself in another major conflict, and Memorial Day evolved to commemorate American military personnel who died in all wars. For decades, Memorial Day continued to be observed on May 30, the date Logan had selected for the first Decoration Day. In 1968 Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which established Memorial Day as the last Monday in May in order to create a three-day weekend for federal employees. The change went into effect in 1971. The same law also declared Memorial Day a federal holiday.

Memorial Day Traditions

What began as a simple commemoration of reciting prayers and decorating graves has evolved into the larger day of remembrance that it is today. While Americans continue to observe Memorial Day by visiting cemeteries and memorials, cities and towns across the United States now host Memorial Day parades each year. Most of these include marching bands and feature military personnel and members of veterans’ organizations. Some of the largest parades take place in Chicago, New York and Washington, D.C.. The National Memorial Day Concert takes place on the west lawn of the United States Capitol.

In 1915 during World War I, a physician with the Canadian Expeditionary Force, wrote the poem, "In Flanders Fields". Its opening lines refer to the fields of bright red poppies that grew among the soldiers' graves in Flanders, Belgium. In 1918, inspired by the poem, YWCA worker Moina Michael attended a YWCA Overseas War Secretaries' conference wearing a silk poppy pinned to her coat and distributed over two dozen more to others present. To Michael the poppies symbolized the blood spilled by fallen heroes. She wrote:

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.

In 1920, the National American Legion adopted it as their official symbol of remembrance. Today, Veterans of Foreign War (VFW) Buddy Poppies are assembled by disabled and needy veterans in Veterans Administration (VA) Hospitals. The VFW Buddy Poppy program provides compensation to the veterans and provides financial assistance for veterans’ programs.