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GPSolo May/June 2024: The Changing Face of Evidence

The Meaning Behind Memorial Day

Julie T Houth


  • Memorial Day honors those who made the ultimate sacrifice so we can enjoy all the freedoms that come with living in this great nation.
  • The “birthplace” of Memorial Day is hotly debated. Many sites around the nation claim this title.
The Meaning Behind Memorial Day
Emmett Loverde via Getty Images

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Holidays have a special place in my heart because I often have plans with loved ones on those days, whether those plans involve taking a trip together or just enjoying each other’s company. I also usually have the day off work, so that’s a bonus. Americans have several holidays throughout the calendar year. Some holidays are federally recognized, and some are recognized only on a state or local level. Most of us know and understand the history behind holidays such as Thanksgiving and Independence Day, and depending on who you work for and your employment classification (e.g., W-2 employee versus 1099 contractor), these holidays are usually paid time off from work. But what about Memorial Day? What is the history behind this holiday?

The Origins of Memorial Day

Memorial Day is a federal holiday in the United States. The reason behind this holiday is to honor and mourn those who have died in service to our country as part of the U.S. military. It was first widely observed on May 30, 1868, to commemorate the sacrifices of soldiers in the Civil War. Major General John A. Logan, the head of the Grand Army of the Republic, an organization of Union veterans, established Decoration Day as a time for the nation to decorate with flowers the graves of the deceased from the war. Major General Logan declared that Decoration Day would be observed on May 30. The first large observance was held that year at Arlington National Cemetery, across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C.

The “birthplace” of Memorial Day is hotly debated; many other places around the nation claim this title. In 1966, Congress and President Lyndon B. Johnson declared Waterloo, New York, to be the birthplace of Memorial Day. At Waterloo on May 5, 1866, a ceremony took place to honor local veterans who had fought in the Civil War. Businesses closed, and flags were flown at half-staff. In 1873, New York was the first state to designate Memorial Day as a legal holiday. By the late 1800s, many cities and communities observed Memorial Day, and several states ultimately declared it a legal holiday.

By the end of the 19th century, Memorial Day ceremonies were being held on May 30 throughout the nation. The name “Memorial Day” gradually became more common than “Decoration Day,” specifically after World War II, but it was not declared the official name by federal law until 1967. In addition, after World War II, it became an occasion for honoring those who died in all of America’s wars and was then more widely established as a national holiday throughout the United States. From 1868 to 1970, it was observed on May 30, but since 1971, when Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, it has been observed on the last Monday of May.

Memorial Day Observations in Modern Times

On Memorial Day, we do not say “Happy Memorial Day” or “Thank you for your service,” but instead we remember those we lost; we leave bouquets of flowers at graves and fly American flags at half-staff for those who died in America’s wars.

Memorial Day is commemorated at Arlington National Cemetery each year with a ceremony in which a small American flag is placed on each grave. Historically, the president or vice president lays a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. This is often televised so those at home can view the ceremony.

In December 2000, Congress passed the National Moment of Remembrance Act, creating the White House Commission on the National Moment of Remembrance. The essence of the commission is to encourage the people of the United States to give something back to their country, which provides them so much freedom and opportunity. The National Moment of Remembrance encourages all Americans to pause wherever they are at 3:00 pm local time on Memorial Day for a minute of silence to remember and honor those who have died in service to the nation.

Final Thoughts

When I do not fully know or understand something, I make a conscious effort to do research to gather some background on the topic. I think this is an important trait, for lawyers and for everyone. We all should want to learn more about things that affect us personally and about which we do not have full answers. I switched from a political science major to a history major in college because I was curious about my own cultural background. As a practicing lawyer, I still use that curiosity and the skills I developed in college. I enjoy digging into a topic and going down “rabbit holes” of research—I find it fun, and I believe knowledge is power. I encourage my fellow lawyers to stay curious and continue to have the desire to learn and better themselves. The idea of having “Memorial Day” is not lost on me. As a person with immigrant parents who lived through and survived wartime, I understood the significance of having this holiday; even so, I wanted to know the actual history of Memorial Day. Hence, I looked further into the legal history of how Memorial Day became the federal holiday that we all recognize today.

History is so important because it forms our identity—whether as a person, as a nation, or as part of the human race. Memorial Day is a historical day in our nation’s history. It is a way and a day for us to remember those we lost in America’s wars. We have made it a tradition to value the history of those no longer with us so we may never forget their lives and the reason we retain the freedoms we have today. These freedoms can be wiped out if we do not learn from our past. Although I have not served in the U.S. military, I greatly respect those who have risked it all so I can enjoy my life free of the chaos of war. So, remember that Memorial Day is not just another holiday and day off work but a day to honor those who served in the U.S. military so we can enjoy all the freedoms that come with living in this great nation.