The true meaning of Memorial Day


We all think it: Memorial Day symbolizes the start of summer. For many Americans it means dusting off the grill and making the pool water sparkle. It means big sales at the stores. It means hot dogs, baseball and a three-day weekend.

It means that spring is on its way out and the hazy, lazy, crazy days of summer are on the way in.

And yes, many of us get a lump in our throats as we watch from our lawn chairs as our veterans parade by — some marching in uniform, some riding in antique vehicles. Memorial Day is a day of remembrance for those who have died in our nation’s service. They gave their lives for their county, and never came home from war. They never saw their families again.

Memorial Day — originally called Decoration Day — was first observed on May 30, 1868, when flowers were placed on the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery. New York was the first state to officially recognize the holiday, in 1873, and by 1890 it was observed by all of the northern states. (The South at first refused, honoring its dead separately until after World War I, when the holiday widened its focus from the Civil War to honoring Americans who died fighting in any war.)

Many of us have forgotten the true meaning of the day. While countless cities, towns and villages still stage Memorial Day parades, many have not held one in decades.

To help remind Americans of the holiday’s true meaning, a National Moment of Remembrance resolution was passed 10 years ago, suggesting that at 3 p.m. local time, Americans observe a moment of remembrance and respect, pausing from whatever they are doing for a few seconds of silence or to listen to taps.

Some people feel that when Congress turned the observance into a mandatory three-day weekend with the National Holiday Act of 1971, it made it easier for people to be distracted from the meaning of the day. They believe Memorial Day should be returned to its traditional day of observance, May 30.

If we change Memorial Day now, however, even fewer people may pause to reflect on our war dead, especially if the holiday falls in the middle of the work week. Parade attendance might drop dramatically, and many towns might stop having ceremonies altogether.

But there are other ways to keep the true meaning of the day in your heart and mind. Visit your local cemetery and place flags or flowers on the graves of fallen heroes. Fly the flag at half staff until noon. (Call your local veterans organization and ask them about flag etiquette.) Honor the National Moment of Remembrance at 3 p.m.

Make a pledge to help the widows, widowers and orphans of our fallen heroes or to aid disabled veterans. Say thank you to those who served and lived to tell their story by taking some flowers or cookies to a nearby veterans hospital. Make it a family affair: Watch a show about our fighting men and women. The History Channel carries Memorial Day-themed programming throughout this weekend, which in the past has included “The Complete History of the Green Berets” and “The Unsung Heroes of Pearl Harbor.”

If you’re interested in helping to restore Memorial Day to May 30, write to your local representatives and urge them to support these bills. For more information, visit

Remember, Memorial Day is a national day of mourning. Don’t feel guilty about celebrating the very freedom that so many men and women gave their lives for, but don’t forget them next Monday — or any other day of the year.