Memorial Day: A solemn occasion

Memorial Day began in the 19th century as “Decoration Day.” Citizens were urged to decorate the graves of soldiers who died in the Civil War. After World War I, Decoration Day expanded to include ceremonies honoring the dead in all of America’s wars.

Decoration Day officially became Memorial Day in 1967. The following year, the Uniform Holidays Act established it as one of three holidays (including Veteran’s Day and George Washington’s birthday, now called President’s Day) celebrated on a Monday to create a convenient three-day weekend. Memorial Day is now observed on the last Monday in May.

One long-held tradition of Memorial Day is the wearing of poppies. The custom is generally credited to Moina Michael, a former teacher at the University of Georgia, who was working for the YMCA Overseas War Secretaries at the end of World War I. She was inspired by reading the poem “In Flanders Fields,” by Canadian John McCrae. The poem’s opening lines read:

In Flanders Fields, the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row . . .”

During the Overseas War Secretaries’ annual conference held in New York City in 1918, shortly before the signing of the armistice ending the war, grateful delegates gave Michael $10 in recognition of her help with the conference. She spent the money on 25 red silk poppies to hand out to participants (some sources say she may have used the money on materials to make the poppies herself.)

The poppy became a national symbol of remem­brance, and two years later the American Legion adopted it at its own conference. Poppies have symbolized the day since then.

Here are a few thoughts for this Memorial Day:

  • “Although no sculptured marble should rise to their memory, nor engraved stone bear record of their deeds, yet will their remembrance be as lasting as the land they honored.” (Daniel Webster)
  • “Perform, then, this one act of remembrance before this day passes: Remember there is an army of defense and advance that never dies and never surrenders, but is increasingly recruited from the eternal sources of the American spirit and from the generations of American youth.” (W.J. Cameron)
  • “I have never been able to think of the day as one of mourning; I have never quite been able to feel that half-masted flags were appropriate on Decoration Day. I have rather felt that the flag should be at the peak, because those whose dying we commemorate rejoiced in seeing it where their valor placed it. We honor them in a joyous, thankful, triumphant commemoration of what they did.” (Benjamin Harrison)