Summer Holidays: Memorial Day

Wreaths of red poppies on war memorial engraved "Their name liveth for evermore"

For many, Memorial Day is the unofficial start of summer. Americans often take advantage of the three-day weekend to take short vacations, visit with family and friends, or have barbeques. Officially, it is an American holiday observed on the last Monday of May to honor the members of the U.S. military who died while serving.

Memorial Day’s origins began three years after the Civil War. Local tributes had previously taken place in various towns and cities across the US with local citizens decorating the graves of the Civil War dead with flowers and reciting prayers in springtime. In 1868, the first large observance was held at Arlington National Cemetery on May 30. The day, known as Decoration Day, was organized by the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), an organization of Union veterans, led by Maj. Gen. John A. Logan. It is believed May 30 was chosen because it was not the anniversary of any particular battle and flowers would be in bloom all over the country.

Northern States continued to observe Decoration Day in the following years, by 1890 many had made Decoration Day a state holiday. Southern States continued to honor the Civil War fallen on separate days. After World War I, the day came to observe all those who had died in U.S. wars. The name changed from Decoration Day to Memorial Day. After WWI, the United States adopted the red poppy flower as a symbol of remembrance to commemorate the sacrifice of those who have given their lives for their country. Other nations wear the red poppy on November 11 known internationally as Remembrance Day or Armistice Day and in the U.S. as Veteran’s Day.

In 1968, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act establishing Memorial Day as a federal holiday and making the day of observance the last Monday in May. The change went into effect in 1971. 

Across the country celebrations and memorials are held to remember the fallen. Veteran’s organizations sell poppies at various locations on National Poppy Day, the Friday before Memorial Day, to help raise funds to support veterans in numerous ways. Arlington National Cemetery has a ceremony placing a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and decorate each grave with a small American flag. Placing flags on each grave is known as “Flags In.” Locally, cities and towns have parades, concerts, and memorial services to commemorate the day. Operation Stand Down RI will present Boots on the Ground for Heroes Memorial at Fort Adams in Newport May 27 – May 30, 2022. The memorial will honor the lives of U.S. service members killed in action post 9-11 in the Global War on Terror.

Whatever you do this Memorial Day weekend, be safe, have fun, and take a moment to remember all those members of the U.S. military who died while serving.