Memorial Day

memorial-dayWhat is memorial day? Memorial Day is a United States federal holiday observed on the last Monday of May (May 31 in 2010). Formerly known as Decoration Day, it commemorates U.S. men and women who died while in the military service. First enacted to honor Union soldiers of the American Civil War (it is celebrated near the day of reunification after the Civil War), it was expanded after World War I.

Many people observe this holiday by visiting cemeteries and memorials. A national moment of remembrance takes place at 3 p.m. local time. Another tradition is to fly the flag of the United States at half-staff from dawn until noon local time. Volunteers often place American flags on each grave site at National Cemeteries.

Members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars take donations for poppies in the days leading up to Memorial Day; the poppy’s significance to Memorial Day is the result of the John McCrae poem “In Flanders Fields.”

In addition to remembrance, Memorial Day is also used as a time for picnics, barbecues, family gatherings, and sporting events. One of the longest-standing traditions is the running of the Indianapolis 500, an auto race which has been held in conjunction with Memorial Day since 1911. The Coca-Cola 600 has been held later the same day since 1961.

The National Memorial Day Concert takes place on the west lawn of the United States Capitol. The concert is broadcast on PBS and NPR. Music is performed, and respect is paid to the men and women who gave their lives for their country.

Some Americans view Memorial Day as the unofficial beginning of summer and Labor Day as the unofficial end of the season.

Memorial Day formerly was observed on May 30. The Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) and Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War (SUVCW) advocate returning to this fixed date, although the significance of the date is tenuous. The VFW stated in a 2002 Memorial Day Address:

Changing the date merely to create three-day weekends has undermined the very meaning of the day. No doubt, this has contributed a lot to the general public’s nonchalant observance of Memorial Day.

In addition to national observances, many individual communities hold memorial observance for fallen soldiers who were from that town by having a ceremony in a church or town memorial park. It is common for fire and police departments to remember and honor members lost in the line of duty. Towns often hold a Memorial Day parade in honor of such residents. Participation in such a parade is by community organizations such as members of the local emergency services and their vehicles, Rotary Clubs, Boy Scouts of America, Girl Scouts of the USA, bands from the local high school or church groups, veterans associations, and high school JROTC or college ROTC programs.

Charles Ives’s symphonic poem “Decoration Day” depicted the holiday as he experienced it in his childhood, with his father’s band leading the way to the town cemetery, the playing of “Taps” on a trumpet, and a livelier march tune on the way back to the town. It is frequently played with three other Ives works based on holidays as the second movement of A New England Holidays Symphony.