The celebration of Memorial Day, and its predecessor Decoration Day, is long and deeply ingrained within the American mind. The remembrance always took place during May or early June when graves were decorated with flowers that were in bloom at the time. A flower, in fact, the red poppy, has remained a symbol of the day, first worn by a World War I volunteer, Moina Michael.
Michael also wrote a tribute in response to a famous poem, “In Flanders Fields,” written in 1915 by Canadian soldier, John McCrae, about losses in Belgian Flanders. Michael wrote, “We cherish, too, the poppy red/That grows on fields where valor led/It seems to signal to the skies/That blood of heroes never dies.”
The practice of placing flowers on graves led to the name Decoration Day, an occasion that usually included religious services and potluck meals. Memorial Day as we know it originated after the Civil War. Following the Southern surrender, individual Northern and Southern states held separate days of recognition. It fell to Congress in 1968 to direct the president to issue a proclamation declaring the final Monday of May as a day to remember our nation’s war dead.
It remains so today, with the laying of flowers, presidential proclamation, honor guard salutes and the visits to the graves of the fallen from all the wars and conflicts in which Americans have died in service. It is their day, and to honor them is our duty.