Arlington National Cemetery.

The History Behind the Holiday

The practice of decorating soldiers’ graves with flowers and other markers goes back probably as far as soldiers doing battle. In the U.S., soldiers’ graves have been decorated since before the Civil War and certainly since.

The Civil War, which ended in the spring of 1865, claimed more lives than any conflict in U.S. history. In 1862 fourteen national cemeteries were established, including Arlington National Cemetery, to accommodate the war dead.

On May 5, 1868, General John A. Logan, leader of an organization for Northern Civil War veterans, called for a nationwide day of remembrance later that month. “The 30th of May, 1868, is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers, or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village and hamlet churchyard in the land,” he proclaimed.

The date of Decoration Day, as Logan called it, was chosen because it wasn’t the anniversary of any particular battle.

On the first Decoration Day – May 30, 1868 – former Union General and sitting Ohio Congressman James Garfield made a speech at Arlington National Cemetery: “We do not know one promise these men made, one pledge they gave, one word they spoke; but we do know 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 their virtue.” Five thousand participants decorated the graves of the twenty thousand Union and Confederate soldiers buried there.

By the late 1860s, towns and cities across the country began holding springtime tributes to their fallen soldiers, decorating their graves with flowers and reciting prayers. By 1890 each of the Northern states had made Decoration Day an official state holiday. Southern states continued to honor their dead on separate days until after World War I.

During World War I the United States found itself embroiled in another major conflict with over a hundred thousand U.S. military deaths, and the holiday evolved to commemorate American military personnel who died in all wars.

Poppies as Symbol of Remembrance

John McCrae memorial. Photo: LX 121, Widipedia Commons 3.0.

In 1915, following the Second Battle of Ypres, Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, a brigade-surgeon with the Canadian Expeditionary Force (1872-1918) wrote the poem, “In Flanders Fields.” His friend had been killed in the battle and buried in a makeshift grave among many others. Visiting the grave site the following day, McCrae was struck by the poppies blooming among the markers in Flanders fields in Belgium and wrote his poem the following day.

In Flanders Fields

by John McCrae

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.

Photo: Benoit Aubry, Creative Commons 3.0.

McCrae died of pneumonia in 1918. Later that year, inspired by his poem, YWCA worker Moina Michael wrote a poem as tribute to McCrae’s account of death on Flanders Field. While attending a YWCA Overseas War Secretaries’ conference, Michael wore a silk poppy pinned to her coat and distributed several more to other attendees. Her poem and promotion of the poppy caused it to become a symbol of remembrance for the fallen. In 1920, the National American Legion adopted it as their official symbol of remembrance.

Learn about the American Cemetery at Flanders Field here.

The Holiday We Know Today

The preferred name for the holiday gradually changed from “Decoration Day” to “Memorial Day,” a name first used in 1882 but which didn’t become the more common name until after World War II. Memorial Day was declared the official name by Federal law in 1967, and in 1968, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act which moved four holidays, including Memorial Day, from their traditional dates to a specified Monday in order to create a convenient three-day weekend. The change moved Memorial Day from its traditional May 30 date to the last Monday in May.

On Memorial Day, the U.S. flag is raised briskly to the top of the staff and then solemnly lowered to the half-staff position, where it remains until noon when it is raised back to full-staff for the remainder of the day.

A bugler plays Taps on Memorial Day 2016 at Lorraine American Cemetery and Memorial in St. Avold, France.

Every year Memorial Day is commemorated at Arlington National Cemetery with a ceremony attended by several thousand people in which a small American flag is placed on each grave and the President or Vice President lays a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. A national moment of remembrance takes place at 3:00 p.m. local time.

Ceremonies also occur in American cemeteries in foreign lands where our troops fought and fell.

For many Americans the central event of Memorial Day is attending one of the thousands of parades held in towns and cities across the country, often featuring marching bands, the National Guard or service members participating along with veterans and military vehicles from various wars. Volunteers in many communities decorate soldiers’ graves in their local cemeteries with flags or flowers. Family picnics and family-friendly activities are also common ways to celebrate and remember.

Listening to the PBS National Memorial Day Concert which this year takes place on Sunday, May 27, at 8:00 pm Eastern Time on the west lawn of the United States Capitol, is another favored way to mark the holiday. The concert “features uplifting musical performances, documentary footage and dramatic readings that honor the military service of all our men and women in uniform and their families at home,” according to PBS, and is broadcast live on PBS and NPR. It is one of the highest-rated programs on PBS.

Local Cemeteries

Cemeteries can be fascinating places to visit, a glimpse into a town’s history. Our local cemeteries will likely be decorated with flags and flowers this Memorial Day holiday weekend, marking the graves of those who have served. The following is a list of local cemeteries with links providing maps and photographs of most of the markers in each. For example, you can see photos the markers for Thomas and Louisa McCall, for whom McCall was named and whose headstones are found in the McCall Cemetery.

Thomas McCall grave marker.

Louisa McCall, 1842 – 1927.

McCall Cemetery – 991 photos of headstones. At 321 N. Mission Street, McCall.

Meadows Valley Cemetery – 821 photos of headstones. Off Cemetery Road in Meadows Valley.

Finn Cemetery – 467 photos of headstones. On Finn Church Lane, southeast of Lake Fork.

Spink Cemetery – 114 photos of headstones. Off Farm to Market Road southeast of McCall.

Holmes Cemetery – 242 photos of headstones. Off Gold Fork Road south of McCall.

Here is a listing of all cemeteries located near McCall (with map).

About the author

Rebecca Wallick

Rebecca is a freelance writer and publisher living near McCall, Idaho. A Seattle native and recovering attorney, she much prefers the quiet, slow pace, and distinct seasons of the West Central Mountains, enjoying the skiing, hiking and running opportunities provided by the nearby Payette National Forest. Rebecca is a Contributing Editor with Bark magazine, and the author of Growing Up Boeing: The Early Jet Age Through the Eyes of a Test Pilot’s Daughter (Feb 2014).

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