The Memorial Day weekend is upon us!  Often referred to as the unofficial start of summer, the Memorial Day holiday is a time when many Americans enjoy a family picnic, patriotic parades and a day off of work.   But, of course, Memorial Day is much more than a holiday.  It is the day Americans honor all of the men and women who died serving in the United States military.
The holiday originated after the Civil War which claimed more lives than any conflict in United States history and required the establishment of the country’s first national cemeteries.  By the late 1860s, Americans in various towns and cities began holding springtime tributes to the fallen by decorating their graves and reciting prayers.
On May 5, 1868, General John Logan, leader of an organization for Northern Civil War veterans, called for a nationwide day of remembrance later that month. “The 30th of May, 1868, is designated 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, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village and hamlet churchyard in the land,” he proclaimed.  The date of Decoration Day, as Logan called it, was chosen because it did not conflict with the anniversary of any particular battle.
On the first Decoration Day, Congressman James Garfield (a former Major General in the Union Army who would later become the 20th President of the United States) made a speech at Arlington National Cemetery, and 5,000 participants decorated the graves of the 20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers buried there.  [Take the time to click here to read Garfield’s speech.  It is as applicable today as it was 150 years ago.]
Many Northern states held similar commemorative events and continued the tradition in subsequent years.  By 1890, Decoration Day was an official state holiday in most Northern states.  Southern states, on the other hand, continued to honor their dead on separate days until after World War I.  Memorial Day, as Decoration Day gradually came to be known, subsequently evolved to commemorate American military personnel who died in all wars.
As you celebrate Memorial Day this weekend, I encourage each of you to remember the fallen with grateful hearts and a determination to serve others.  As President John F. Kennedy said: “As we express our gratitude, we must never forget the highest appreciation is not to utter the words, but to live by them.”
Yours in Rotary,