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The Origins of Memorial Day

For many, Memorial Day conjures up images of burgers and beer and hanging out with family and friends. For some, it's the unofficial start of summer as it's always observed on the last Monday of May. But truth is, Memorial Day has a somber side to it, too. It's an important American holiday dedicated to honoring and remembering the men and women who have died in military service to the United States. Just ponder what that really means. 

You might think the holiday came about one of the great world wars, but nope. Memorial Day's roots can be traced back to the aftermath of the American Civil War, a conflict that claimed more lives than any other in US history. So many died during this war that the US established the country’s first national cemeteries.

Early Commemorations

The tradition of decorating graves with flowers, wreaths, and flags dates back to ancient times, but the specific practice of honoring fallen soldiers began in earnest in the late 1860s. Various towns and cities independently started to hold springtime tributes tosoldiers, often decorating their graves with flowers and reciting prayers.

One of the earliest recorded instances of this was in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1865. Freed slaves and Union soldiers gathered to honor the Union soldiers who had died in a Confederate prison camp. They cleaned up and landscaped the burial ground, held a parade, and sang hymns. Amazing, right? To honor the enemy's fallen like was quite something.

The Birth of Decoration Day

The official origins of Memorial Day are commonly attributed to General John A. Logan, leader of an organization for Northern Civil War veterans. On May 5, 1868, General Logan issued a proclamation calling for a “Decoration Day” to be observed nationwide. He declared that Decoration Day should be celebrated on May 30, a date he chose because it was not the anniversary of any particular battle which meant it could be universally commemorated.

General James Garfield give a speech at the first national celebration which was held at Arlington National Cemetery, after which 5,000 participants decorated the graves of the 20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers buried there.

Evolution into Memorial Day

Decoration Day gradually became known as Memorial Day and extended to honor all American military personnel who had died in all wars, not just the Civil War. After World War I, the holiday grew to commemorate American military personnel who died in any conflict, not just the Civil War.

In 1968, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which established Memorial Day as the last Monday in May in order to create a three-day weekend for federal employees; the change went into effect in 1971. The same law also declared Memorial Day a federal holiday.

Traditions and Observances

Today, Memorial Day is marked by various traditions and observances. Many Americans visit cemeteries and memorials to honor the fallen, often leaving flowers and American flags on graves. Cities and towns across the United States host parades, which often include military personnel and members of veterans’ organizations.

Back home in the States at 3::00 PM local time, a national moment of remembrance takes place, allowing Americans to pause and reflect on the sacrifices of those who have died in service to the nation.

Americans also observe Memorial Day by visiting cemeteries and memorials. Some people wear a red poppy in remembrance of those fallen in war—a tradition that began with a World War I poem.

Americans living in Singapore don't get Memorial Day off and there are very few celebrations marking the holiday here. So it's important you take it upon yourselves to teach your children about the day and why the holiday matters. This website has some good ideas about how to teach children about the importance of the day.


Memorial Day stands as a poignant reminder of the cost of freedom and the bravery of those who have paid the ultimate price. Its origins, deeply rooted in the Civil War, have evolved to honor all American military personnel who have died in service to their country. As the nation observes this day, it serves both as a time of reflection and as a celebration of the values and liberties these heroes fought to protect.

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