Memorial Day on May 30 is our national holiday for remembering the patriotic men and women who sacrificed their lives in the military service of this country to preserve the freedoms we cherish as Americans. Many Americans do not know the origin, meaning and significance.
This day of remembrance has been observed since 1868 to honorably memorialize our brave military members who gave their lives defending this country. The genesis came from Northern and Southern women who decorated the graves of fallen soldiers with flowers in respectful remembrance during and after the Civil War. It was originally known as Decoration Day.
It became Memorial Day and a federal holiday set on the last Monday of May by the 1971 National Holiday Act. The 2000 National Moment of Remembrance Act requests that we pause for one minute at 3pm on Memorial Day as an act of national unity to respectfully remember America’s fallen military heroes. Memorial Day weekend starts the summer vacation season.
Memorial Day should not be confused with Veterans Day (every November 11th) recognizing living and deceased military veterans who honorably served any length of time during peace or war and are no longer serving or Armed Forces Day (3rd Saturday in May) recognizing military men and women currently serving. We commemorate three distinct categories of military service with three different national observances. Armed Forces Day is for those still serving in uniform, Veterans Day is for those who have hung up their uniform and Memorial Day is for those who never made it out of their uniform.
The first American revolutionary fatality was Crispus Attucks, an American stevedore of African and Native descent, killed by the British during the Boston Massacre over 250 years ago. Eight citizen-soldiers fell later at the beginning of American Revolution armed hostilities near Lexington, Massachusetts. 1,354,644 have perished fighting for this country and 40,031 remain missing in action. There will be more as long as we humans remain a warring species. Greek Philosopher PLATO wisely warned “Only the dead have seen the end of war”.
Patriotic remembrance ceremonies and events are held throughout the country, including the National Memorial Day Concert on PBS and a wreath placing ceremony by the President at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery. The American Legion crimson poppy flower is sold and worn as the nationally recognized symbol of sacrifice for those who gave their lives in the service of their country.
On Memorial Day, the American flag is traditionally raised to the top of the staff in the morning and lowered to half-staff until noon when it is raised back to full staff for the rest of the day. Lowering the flag to half-staff represents remembrance of those fallen. Return to full staff symbolizes their memory being raised by the living who resolve not to let their sacrifice be in vain, but to rise up and continue the fight for liberty and justice.
Another American tradition observed during Memorial Day weekend is the placing of coins on graves of deceased military members who gave their lives serving our country. It is a symbolic act of respect and gratitude for their service and sacrifice. Coins of different denominations have distinct meanings (Penny – you knew the deceased, Nickel – you and the deceased attended basic training together, Dime – you and the deceased served together, and Quarter – you were present when the deceased was killed).
Vietnam War veterans established a different but related coin tradition. Change of any denomination can be left at the grave of a deceased military comrade as the “down-payment” on a promise to buy him or her a drink when you meet in the afterlife. The custom of placing coins with the deceased originated in ancient Greek mythology.
Wherever you may be this Memorial Day, please pause for a moment to remember with patriotic pride and genuine gratitude our brave military men and women who sacrificed their precious lives for our cherished American liberties.
“…as a nation, we must always remember – always remember. We must remember the price that was paid for our liberties. We must remember the debt we owe those who have paid it, and the families left behind.” – President Joe Biden (Memorial Day Service, White House, 2021)
Brigadier General John Compere, US Army (Retired)
Disabled American Veteran (Vietnam Era)
Board Member, Military Religious Freedom Foundation