While the debate on when and where the first Decoration Day/Memorial Day was held in America still rages, one fact remains–the day set aside to honor and remember those fallen in battle, those who bravely fought for our freedom, was originally the concept of women.
The custom of decorating the graves of soldiers harkens back to the Ancient Greeks. This Attic Vase Painting, from the Classic Period dating back to 440 B.C., depicts two women approaching a grave stele or monument that has been draped with two wreaths.
The tradition of putting wreaths and flowers on soldiers graves became rooted in America, unfortunately, as the result of war on our own land. The Civil War erupted in 1861. On June 3rd of that year, in Warrenton, Virginia, the first grave of a fallen Civil War soldier was decorated to honor and remember the loss due to combat.
This simple act would be repeated over the years in various places on separate dates, with many in the North and South claiming the origin of Decoration Day or Memorial Day. Yet the fact remains, the different day set aside to decorate these graves held the same meaning at its core, to remember and honor those who fought for our freedom.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the great “Fireside Poet”, whose works reflect the morals and struggles of his fellow man, would pass away in his home just weeks before his poem commemorating this occasion would be published in Atlantic in June of 1882.
Sleep, comrades, sleep and rest
On this Field of the Grounded Arms,
Where foes no more molest,
Nor sentry’s shot alarms!
Ye have slept on the ground before,
And started to your feet
At the cannon’s sudden roar,
Or the drum’s redoubling beat.
But in this camp of Death
No sound your slumber breaks;
Here is no fevered breath,
No wound that bleeds and aches.
All is repose and peace,
Untrampled lies the sod;
The shouts of battle cease,
It is the Truce of God!
Rest, comrades, rest and sleep!
The thoughts of men shall be
As sentinels to keep
Your rest from danger free.
Your silent tents of green
We deck with fragrant flowers;
Yours has the suffering been,
The memory shall be ours.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
By 1898 General John Logan declared Decoration Day to be celebrated nationally and annually. Parades flourished, it became a day of games, picnics and at one point the running of the Indianapolis 500.
It wasn’t until after World War II that the two names merged with Memorial Day established as the nationally accepted title. It did not become a Federal Holiday until 1971.
Lost are the lives of those who gave their all to protect us on our soil and abroad. What can not be lost, in the gaiety of this three-day weekend, is the origin and deep-rooted significance of Memorial Day.
To honor and remember our soldiers.
• Participate with tradition.
• Visit the grave site of a war hero, all who served are, and leave a flower or U.S. Flag to let their spirit, and the world, know they are not forgotten.
• Lower your flag to half-mast until noon, then raise Old Glory to her full height.
• At 3:00 p.m., wherever you are, stop and remember.
• If you hear ‘Taps’ being played in the distance, stop to honor the moment.
• Read this Decoration Day poem by Longfellow or the World War I epic by John McCrea, “In Flanders Fields” (put link in here to my other blog on poppies)
• Buy a Red Poppy and wear it proudly to support our troops.
• Remind others. While celebrating with family and friends this weekend, relay the history of this important day.