Memorial Day: How and Why We Remember

Monday is Memorial Day in the United States. It’s a holiday that signifies for many of us the beginning of summer. Schools are either already out or are soon to be for the summer break. Workers are planning their summer vacations.

The weekend is marked with sales, especially at home improvement outlets, as this weekend is designated as a time to clean up your yard and get it ready for summer.


Memorial Day was declared a federal holiday in 1966 to remember those who died in the armed forces while serving their country. But folks had been celebrating a hundred years before the day was actually declared a holiday. Here in the South we call it Decoration Day, a day set aside to clean up the cemeteries  where the war dead were buried, as many of them were buried far from home in graves identified only as Unknown Soldier.

The person who gets the credit for creating the holiday is druggist Henry Welles of Waterloo, New York. Welles is to have suggested that it would be a good idea to honor those who died in the Civil War to General John Murray, a war hero, and on May 5, 1866, the town of Waterloo did just that.

This is Henry C. Welles, the man credited with founding Memorial Day in the US.

Of course, like many good ideas, this one was credited to a white man, when, in fact, it was African Americans that celebrated the first Decoration Day.

On May 1, 1865, former slaves gathered in Charleston, South Carolina, at what was a war prison. They reburied Union Soldiers in a proper cemetery they built and called Martyrs of the Race Course, then held a ceremony to honor the dead. (this info came from

For many years afterward it was a tradition that white Southerners decorated the graves of Confederate soldiers while Northerners decorated the graves of Union soldiers. Declaring Memorial Day an official holiday to honor ALL soldiers who died while serving their country did help quell the Civil War remembrance thing.

In fact, while we’re grilling and shopping and planting flowers, we’ll hardly remember our war dead at all.

by political cartoonist Gary Varvel of the Indy Star
by political cartoonist Gary Varvel of the Indy Star

15 thoughts on “Memorial Day: How and Why We Remember

      1. The TV stations here in Richmond are just blaring all the sales going on. I didn’t need to watch that badly – I turned it off and read a book instead.

  1. Very informative. Thank you.
    Today I saw a young girl wearing a very skimpy top with jagged edges made out of fabric of an American flag. It looked terrible, but beyond that it was upsetting to me to see our flagged in such a way.

    1. I see it as the closest some of our kids will ever get to patriotism, except, of course, the perverse sort they learn about on Fox News.

    1. They were kids, far younger than I, and they had to go in and fight battles because men considered older and wiser didn’t act in time to prevent war. The same is happening today.

      1. It’s sadly true… and we can only dream about a world in peace where no one has to die before lived and where no parents have to visit the graves of their sons… :o(

      2. We could start by pushing the old men to the side and let women do the governing for a change. I think we have hundreds of years of proof that they don’t do a very good job.

  2. This is why “Happy Memorial Day” expressions are highly inappropriate! My husband and I make an annual trip to our local cemetery and pay our respects to the vets buried there and the dead in general. We didn’t go shopping.

  3. Never heard it called Decoration Day – guess that’s deep South.
    We always pruned and cleaned the very old country cemetery in the fall. There was a small gathering then with picnic lunch later.
    Here there’s a big memorial service at the Veteran’s Cemetery, boy and girl scouts put flags on each grave, bagpipes play, and there’s a 21 gun salute followed by bugle’s “Taps.”
    Good to be with family and retell hisotry (vets back to WWI left stories behind) – not shop. Would prefer everything shut down. To emphasize the serious nature and meaning of the day….but retail is what’s important now.

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