A Guide to Memorial Day Origins and Traditions

Memorial Day is just around the corner, and many of us are making plans to attend ceremonies at area cemeteries, town parades, neighborhood barbecues and local Veterans’ celebrations. We thought we’d take a moment, though, to recap some of the rich history behind this important holiday. 

No one really knows where it started.

In 1966, President Lyndon Johnson declared Waterloo, NY, as the official birthplace of Memorial Day. Waterloo’s celebration dates back to May 5, 1866, when the trees were draped with black and the flags lowered to half-staff while the citizens paraded through three cemeteries, decorating Civil War Veterans’ graves and commemorating their sacrifices. However, the real origin is unknown, with more than two dozen cities and towns claiming that theirs was the first to celebrate the annual tradition.


It was originally called “Decoration Day.”

On May 5, 1868, General John Logan, commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, ordered his troops to set aside May 30 “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.” From then on, the day was known as Decoration Day, named to describe the act of decorating Veterans’ graves with flowers, flags and black fabric. The modern holiday wasn’t referred to as Memorial Day until after World War II.

The date has significance.

For more than a century, Americans celebrated Memorial Day on the 30th of May – whenever it fell during the week. At the time, the date was chosen because no major battles had ever been fought on that day. Then, in 1968, Congress passed the Uniform Holiday Bill in an effort to use federal holidays to create three-day weekends for American workers. Memorial Day officially changed to the last Monday in May in 1971.

It didn’t always include all Veterans.

Historically, Memorial Day was intended to unify the Union and Confederate forces for a national day of mourning. It wasn’t until after World War I that the definition was expanded to include deceased Veterans who had fought in any American war. Today, many Americans use the day to celebrate both Veterans (alive and dead) and those who are currently active in the military.

Flags shouldn’t remain at half-staff.

Proper Memorial Day etiquette dictates that any flags on display should be raised to the top of their poles then lowered to half-staff until noon, when they should return to full height and remain as such until the end of the day. The hours spent at half-mast honor those Veterans who have died fighting for their country. The rest of the day is meant to symbolize the living’s resolve to carry on the fight for freedom.

Poppies weren’t traditionally part of Memorial Day.

Though many Americans commemorate Memorial Day by adorning themselves with red poppies (and many Veterans groups sell them as a fundraiser), this tradition doesn’t actually date back to the original Decoration Day. Instead, it can trace its origins back to “In Flanders Fields,” a poem written by Canadian Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae to honor a comrade who died in 1915. Today, the poem is read aloud at many Memorial Day Celebrations.

Gettysburg boasts the oldest parade.

The Memorial Day parade in Gettysburg, VA, is the longest running celebration of its kind. Though many cities and towns – including Washington, D.C. – have since adopted the practice, Gettysburg’s 149-year-old celebration outruns them all.

Want some creative ways to celebrate Memorial Day at your funeral home? Check out our blog post for some tips, or leave a comment below with a few ideas of your own.

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