Three years after the Civil War ended, on May 5, 1868, the head of an organization of Union veterans established Decoration Day as a time for the nation to decorate the graves of the war dead with flowers. May 30 was chosen because flowers would be in bloom all over the country.
The first large observance was held that year at Arlington National Cemetery and ceremonies centered around the Arlington mansion, once the home of Gen. Robert E. Lee. Various Washington officials, including Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, presided over the ceremonies. After the ceremonies, officials and civilians went through the cemetery adding flowers to every grave marker.
There are several dozen cities in the United States that claim to have first commemorated a Decoration Day type of event. Most of them are in the south where the majority of the casualties were experienced.
In 1966, Congress and President Lyndon Johnson declared Waterloo, N.Y., the “birthplace” of Memorial Day. There, a ceremony on May 5, 1866, honored local veterans who had fought in the Civil War. Businesses closed and residents flew flags at half-staff. By the end of the 19th century, Memorial Day ceremonies were being held on May 30 throughout the nation. State legislatures passed proclamations designating the day, and the Army and Navy adopted regulations giving their personnel instructions on how to observe Memorial Day at their facilities.
It was not until after World War I, however, that the day was expanded to honor those who have died in all American wars. In 1971, Memorial Day was declared a national holiday by an act of Congress, though it is still often called Decoration Day. It was then also placed on the last Monday in May, as were some other federal holidays.
Most Americans, sadly, spend Memorial Day weekend enjoying a long weekend. They do some kind of recreational activity or take advantage of sales. Few of them know how to observe Memorial Day.
Well, this post is written specifically for those people and others who are willing to spend at least one day out of their long weekend acknowledging and recognizing the sacrifices made by so many.
Here is a short list of how to observe Memorial Day. The entire weekend does not have to be devoted to remembering, but any gesture of recognition will go a long way in understanding that many people have died in service to the United States and it is important that as a nation we remember those sacrifices. If you do not have any ideas on how to observe Memorial Day, there are some small things you can to if you find yourself asking how to observe Memorial Day.
Here is USAMM’s list of how to observe Memorial Day in no particular order.
1. Fly the Flag
This is probably the easiest of ways to observe Memorial Day. Buy a flagpole and a U.S. flag and put it in your front yard. If you live in the suburbs, most homeowners’ associations allow the American flag (but check with them just in case) and this is a great way to show patriotism and respect for those who have fallen.
On Memorial Day, flags are flown at half-staff from sunrise to noon, then raised to full-staff until sunset.
Museums all over the country, especially military museums, have great exhibits and open their doors to lots of visitors this time of year. The event does not have to be somber, but it can be enlightening and educational, if that is a concern for families with younger kids. So remember, if you are asking how to observe Memorial Day, visiting a museum can be a great learning experience for the entire family.
The museum at Grissom Air Museum in Indiana is a wonderful place and very educational. And the Texas Military Forces Museum at Camp Mabry in Austin, Texas puts on a simulated battle, complete with a Sherman tank, in order to teach younger generations about the history of those who fought in WWII. It isn’t gruesome or dark in anyway.
In military towns there are ordinarily parades that commemorate Memorial Day. Some of the larger cities in the United States have longstanding parades and even small-town America makes it a point to recognize Memorial Day and honor the fallen.
Parades are also very family friendly and they can serve as a good conversation starter to teach children about the sacrifices of those who fought and died for the country.
4. Visit a Cemetery or a Memorial
There are national and state veteran cemeteries located throughout the United States. They are full of America’s war dead and those who died while serving. For adults and children old enough to understand and manage their emotions, visiting a cemetery can be a powerful event.
Many of these cemeteries have ceremonies that honor the fallen and they can be very somber, as they should be. These events allow anyone attending the opportunity to reflect and in their own manner, think about those who have sacrificed so much for their country.
A practice is to leave something at a grave that is visited. Stones, coins and other items left atop the grave marker all have different meanings. Flowers can also be left and you do not need to know the deceased in order to honor them.
5. Check with Local Veterans Organization
Locally, there are many opportunities to commemorate Memorial Day if you find yourself asking how to observe Memorial Day. Veteran service organizations have events which can include a memorial service that includes a chaplain, a guest speaker, a color guard and a bugler playing Taps.
But some also open their doors to the community for cookouts which continue to celebrate those who have died, but also raise money for special veteran organizations that might take care of the family of those who have fallen.
If none of those things interest you, consider watching the National Memorial Day Concert on PBS. Each year, this concert is broadcast from Washington, D.C. and has a great lineup of hosts and entertainers and they recognize veterans of current wars. The concert is free for those who live near D.C.
At the very least, if none of that is possible, for whatever reason, simply stopping and participating in the moment of remembrance is also a way to observe Memorial Day.
At 3 p.m. (varies in all time zones) on Memorial Day, pause and reflect for one minute on the sacrifices made by so many throughout the history of our country.