"By wisdom a house is built, and by understanding it is established; and by knowledge
the rooms are filled with all precious and pleasant riches." ~Proverbs 24:3-4

Not Just For Kids


Memorial Day is also known as Decoration Day. This holiday was set aside to remember those who died in our nation's service, and to decorate the graves of the war dead with flags and flowers. It is difficult to prove the exact origin of the day, as it is likely that it had many separate beginnings. More than two dozen places have been named in connection with Memorial Day, many of them in the South where most of the Civil War gravesites were located. Women's groups in the South were decorating graves even before the end of the Civil War.

In May 1966, President Lyndon Johnson declared Waterloo, N.Y. to be the birthplace of Memorial Day. In that town, a ceremony on May 5, 1866 honored local soldiers and sailors who had fought in the Civil War. Businesses closed and residents flew flags at half-mast. Earlier observances in other places had been either informal or were not community-wide events.

Arlington National Cemetery held its first official Memorial Day ceremony on May 30, 1868, three years after the Civil War had ended. This cemetery, across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C., contained the remains of 20,000 Union dead and several hundred Confederate dead. In tribute, General James A. Garfield said: "They summed up and perfected, by one supreme act, the highest virtues of men and citizens. For love of country they accepted death, and thus resolved all doubts, and made immortal their patriotism and virtue."

Following the ceremonial speeches, children from the Soldiers' and Sailors' Orphan Home and members of the Grand Army of the Republic (comprised of former Union soldier and sailors, and headed by Maj. Gen. John A. Logan) made their way through the cemetery, strewing flowers on both Union and Confederate graves, reciting prayers and singing hymns.

By the end of the 19th century, Memorial Day ceremonies were being held on May 30 all across the nation. State legislatures had passed proclamations designating the day. The Army and Navy adopted regulations for proper observance at their facilities. Southern states, however, refused to acknowledge Memorial Day and instead honored their dead on different days. After World War I, Memorial Day was expanded from honoring just those who died fighting in the Civil War, to honoring Americans who died fighting in any war.

In 1971, Congress declared Memorial Day to be a national legal holiday, though it is still often called Decoration Day. The holiday was also moved to the last Monday in May, because in 1968 Congress had passed a law to ensure a three day weekend for all federal holidays. Memorial Day is now celebrated in almost every state on the last Monday in May, while several southern states still have an additional, separate day for honoring the Confederate war dead.

Since the late 1950's, on the Thursday before Memorial Day, the 1,200 soldiers of the 3rd U. S. Infantry place small American flags at each of the more than 260,000 gravestones at Arlington National Cemetery. Then they patrol the cemetery 24 hours a day during the weekend to ensure that each flag remains standing. Since 1998, on the Saturday before Memorial Day, the Boys Scouts and Girl Scouts place a candle at each of the approximately 15,300 gravesites of soldiers buried at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park.

Unfortunately over the years, the original significance of Memorial Day faded from the public's consciousness. What began as a solemn day of mourning, remembering, and honoring departed loved ones gradually evolved into a day when only a token nod, if any, is given toward our honored dead. Changing the date to create a three-day weekend probably contributed greatly to the modern nonchalant observance of Memorial Day. Many Americans fail to observe the day because they are busy enjoying their long weekend. They have forgotten the real Memorial Day traditions, and some may not even know what the day stands for.

To help Americans remember the meaning of "memorial" on Memorial Day, the "National Moment of Remembrance" resolution was passed in December 2000. On Memorial Day at 3:00 p.m. local time, all Americans are asked "to voluntarily and informally observe in their own way a moment of remembrance and respect, pausing from whatever they are doing for a moment of silence, or listening to 'Taps.'" Memorial Day should be even more relevant in current times, as we would do well to remember the fallen heroes and innocent victims of the September 11th terrorist attacks, and all of the soldiers who have died in Afghanistan and Iraq since then.

It is ultimately up to parents to teach the true meaning of Memorial Day to our children, and make the observance of Memorial Day a family tradition to pass down to future generations. F. L. Lloyd of West Chester, Pennsylvania appropriately described Memorial Day when he said, "If it is considered a holiday, why is it so? I consider it to be a national day of mourning. This is how we observe this day in our home. Because of what that day represents, the rest of the days of the year are our holidays."

Did You Know…?

In 1915, inspired by the poem "In Flanders Fields," Moina Michael conceived of an idea to wear red poppies on Memorial Day in honor of those who died serving the nation in wartime. She sold poppies to her friends and co-workers with the money going to benefit servicemen in need, and founded the National Poppy movement. This tradition also spread to other countries.

In Flanders Fields
By John McCrae (1872-1918)

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

The Story of Taps

"Day is done, gone the sun, from the hills, from the lake, from the skies. All is well, safely rest, God is nigh."

The 24-note melancholy bugle call known as Taps is thought to be a revision of a French bugle signal that notified soldiers to cease an evening's drinking and return to their garrisons. It was sounded an hour before the final bugle call to end the day by extinguishing fires and lights. The word "taps" comes from the obsolete word "taptoo," derived from the Dutch "taptoe." "Tap toe!" was the command to shut the "tap" of a keg.

The revision that gave us present-day Taps was made during the American Civil War by Union Gen. Daniel Adams Butterfield, heading a brigade camped at Harrison Landing, near Richmond, Virginia. One day in July 1862 he recalled the taptoe melody and hummed a version of it to an aide, who wrote it down in music. Butterfield then asked the brigade bugler, Oliver W. Norton, to play the notes and, after listening, lengthened and shortened them while keeping the original melody. He ordered Norton to play this new call at the end of each day thereafter, instead of the formal regulation call. The music was heard and appreciated by other brigades, and even Confederate buglers adopted this bugle call. It was made the official Army bugle call after the war, but was not given the name "Taps" until 1874.

The first time Taps was played at a military funeral may also have been in Virginia soon after Butterfield composed it. Union Capt. John Tidball, head of an artillery battery, ordered it played for the burial of a cannoneer killed in action. Not wanting to reveal the battery's position in the woods to the enemy nearby, Tidball substituted Taps for the traditional three rifle volleys fired over the grave. Taps was played at the funeral of Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson ten months after it was composed. By 1891, Army infantry regulations required Taps to be played at all military funeral ceremonies. Taps is now played by the military at burial and memorial services, to accompany the lowering of the flag, and to signal the "lights out" command at day's end.

How to Observe Memorial Day

The crowd of 5,000 people attending the first Memorial Day ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery was approximately the same size as those at modern observances. Back then, small American flags were placed on each grave - a tradition that is followed at many national cemeteries across the country today. Memorial Day should be a day when we actively remember our ancestors, our family members, our neighbors, and our friends who have made the ultimate sacrifice in service to our nation. Many families also choose to decorate the graves of all departed loved ones on this day.

Traditional Memorial Day observances include: parades and patriotic speeches; visiting memorials; going to cemeteries and placing flags or flowers on graves of fallen heroes and loved ones; flying the American flag at half-staff until noon; flying the POW/MIA Flag; participating in the "National Moment of Remembrance;" playing or singing Taps; pledging to aid disabled veterans as well as the widows, widowers, and orphans of deceased veterans.

Memorial Day Activities For Children

While it is fun to go on picnics and/or camping, children should still be taught the true meaning of Memorial Day. Here are some ideas for Memorial Day activities: Research the Civil War, Arlington National Cemetery, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, or the Vietnam War Memorial. Make cards, placemats, bookmarks, or other appropriate gifts for distribution at a veterans hospital. Look in poetry anthologies for poems about flags, national service, and wars. Compose your own poem about one of these topics. Participate in a Memorial Day parade. Sing patriotic songs.

Memorial Day Websites

(Memorial Day history and information, including poems, prayers, speeches, "Taps," and more.)

(Listen to an audio recording of "In Flanders Fields.")

(Download music and sound files for "Taps.")

(Memorial Day page with activities for children, a military time line, patriotic songs, poems, quotations, and lots of links.) This page appears to be gone, unfortunately. If you know where it is, please e-mail me at .

(Veterans of Foreign Wars pay tribute to the true meaning of Memorial Day.)

(Celebrating America's Freedoms: 14 essays about the country's most familiar symbols, customs, and observances, including Memorial Day.)


These pages are a continuous work in progress.
Copyright © 2000- by Teri Ann Berg Olsen
All rights reserved.

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