Memorial Day: A Day of Mourning

May 27, 2021

Debbie Vallandingham, LMSW-ASCW, Bereavement Manger

To many, it’s the unofficial start of the summer season.  Many people have an extra day off and plan picnics or escapes to the lake.  But do you really know the history and significance of Memorial Day?

The History of “Memorial Day”

The first “memorial days” were held thousands of years ago by ancient Greeks and Romans as they would set aside a yearly day to remember their loved ones.  They would place flowers on graves and hold feasts in their deceased relatives’ honor.  The idea of a Remembrance Day took a turn to focus on soldiers in 431 B.C. after the Peloponnesian war.

In the United States, one of the first days of remembrance was organized by recently freed slaves and regiments of the U.S. Colored Troops (including the famed Massachusetts 54th Infantry) just a few weeks after the end of the civil war.  Three years later, the head of the Union veteran’s group (the Grand Army of the Republic) decreed that May 30th should be a national day of remembrance for those who were killed in the civil war.  They called it “Decoration Day” and charged people with the goal of decorating the graves of those who fought in the war.  Stories suggest that the day was chosen because there were no major battles on that day and flowers would be in bloom.  Michigan was the first state to make Decoration Day an official holiday in 1871.

For more than one hundred years, Decoration Day was celebrated in various states and around the country.  In 1964, Congress passed a law to recognize Decoration Day as a national holiday.  In 1971, the name changed to Memorial Day and the holiday started to be observed on the last Monday in May.  The holiday continues to evolve, even to this day.  In 2000, Congress passed legislation encouraging all Americans to pause at 3:00 p.m. on Memorial Day for a National Moment of Remembrance.

What is the Meaning of Memorial Day?

Memorial Day honors the men and women who died while serving in the United States military.  It differs from Veterans Day as Veterans Day celebrates all who served, regardless of whether they died or survived.  The original Memorial Day proclamation, made by General John Alexander Logan, stated that the holiday was “designated  for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the last rebellion and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village and hamlet churchyard in the land.”

In a May 28, 1899 article titled “Memorial Day of the Future” written by General Marcus P. Miller for the Sunday edition of The San Francisco Call, the future of the holiday and its importance was explored:

The Memorial day of the future will mean much more to the American people than in the past.  Its significance will be broader, deeper, more truly national.  It will mean not only the commemoration of those heroes who fell fighting for the preservation of the Union, but for the first time since its institution, it will be an anniversary of a common sorrow, the surest and most effectual peacemaker in family or nation.

This celebration of those who died in service of their country, and particularly those who died in battle or as a result of their wounds, seeks to memorialize the veterans that gave the ultimate sacrifice.  We honor those who did not return home and reflect on how we have the freedom we enjoy today because of their heroic and selfless act.  The holiday is an excellent time to consider how we can support and safeguard the grieving families and loved ones who have been left behind by this form of ultimate valor.

Reflecting on Memorial Day

For those who have lost a loved one who was serving in the military, the Memorial Day holiday can be a difficult time.  Even if you aren’t mourning a loved one who died in service to our country, you may want to take the time to honor those who gave the ultimate sacrifice.  There are several ways that you can either honor those that we lost or even process personal grief during this holiday:

  • Attend a Memorial Day event virtually. Even with many COVID-19 restrictions being lifted, many cities are hosting mixed in-person and virtual events this year.  You may be able to tune in online or on television and watch parades or other events from your own home.
  • Watch the National Memorial Day Concert. This year, the National Memorial Day Concert, which is usually held on the lawn of the Capitol, will again be virtual.  The concert is part of a three decades-long tradition where stories are matched with performances by the National Symphony Orchestra and guest artists.  The concert will air on PBS and will be available live on Facebook, YouTube and on Video on Demand until June 13th.
  • Fly the American flag at half-staff. On Memorial Day, it is appropriate to fly the flag at half-staff from sunrise until noon.  The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs then recommends that it be briskly raised from noon until sunset in honor of the nation’s battle heroes.
  • Place flowers and flags on graves. This is an opportunity to pay tribute to those who served and to honor their families.  Placing flowers brings us closer to the original traditions of Memorial Day here in the U.S.
  • Be there for a friend who may be grieving the loss of someone in the military. Amid barbeques and days at the lake, those who have lost a loved one in service of our country may feel lonely and isolated.  This is a good opportunity to support friends who may need a friendly ear or shoulder to cry on.
  • Participate in the National Moment of Remembrance at 3:00 p.m. The National Moment of Remembrance is a single minute where all Americans are invited to reflect on the noble and sacred reason for the holiday: honoring those who died in service to our nation.  You may wish to merely be silent or you can listen to taps.

Memorial Day is a good time to reflect on the sacrifice of many soldiers, sailors and airmen and women.  It is the perfect holiday to share with the entire family and to promote an appreciation and respect for those who died so selflessly.  We hope that this year, you will take advantage of one of these many opportunities to reflect on the holiday and to celebrate it with intent.


One-on-one counseling for adults and children along with a variety of virtual support groups. All are offered to assist in coping with the death of a loved one. While feelings of grief are normal, handling them can be difficult and painful. Talking about what you are going through can help. Call 734.779.6690 to schedule an appointment. Or visit Grief Support for more information.

Image Source:
Bubley, Esther, photographer. Arlington Cemetery, Arlington, Virginia. American Legion color bearer at the Memorial Day services in the amphitheater. May. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress.

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