The history of Memorial Day is a long one, and its actual beginnings are somewhat in doubt. What is not in doubt, however, is that the Day was conceived as a way to honor the memories of those who died in the Civil War. It is likely that it was begun in the South, for the Confederate fallen, although President Lyndon Johnson proclaimed its birthplace as Waterloo, N.Y., in 1966. The earliest traditions of “Decoration Day,” as it was first known, included placing flowers on the graves of those who died in battle. In 1869, Gen. John Logan proclaimed that flowers be placed on the graves of all Union and Confederate war dead at Arlington National Cemetery.
Following World War I, it was decreed that the May 30 remembrance be expanded to include all Americans killed in battle. Soon after, red poppies became associated with the holiday through the efforts of both American and French groups who took inspiration from the poem, “In Flanders Fields,” written by John McRae in 1915. Memorial Day was, in its earlier days, marked by civic parades and patriotic observances, as well as ceremonies at veterans cemeteries.
Today, community celebrations are less common, but groups, notably the Boy Scouts, place small American flags on the graves at National Cemeteries. Public observances are also common. In many locales, civic groups and veterans organizations also place wreaths at memorials or locals parks where there are tributes to military service in the country’s various wars.
The date of Memorial Day was changed in 1971 to be the last Monday in May. Today, it is common for family members to place flowers on the graves of their loved ones, but the original meaning of the day has been somewhat lost over the years. In some communities, the day has become a reason for local gatherings such as barbecues and “beginning of summer” activities. And, for some families, it is viewed as an opportunity for fun on a “three-day weekend.”
The sale of artificial poppies nationally is still handled by the VFW, and Americans are urged to take time at 3 p.m. on Memorial Day for a National Moment of Remembrance, or listen to Taps. Those who wish to place flowers on graves should respect cemetery regulations, but any flowers that have meaning for a family are appropriate. There are no “traditional” flowers associated with the observance, but red poppies, if you can find them, would certainly be traditional.
We at Nanz & Kraft would be honored to help you with your floral needs on this Memorial Day.