Putting the ‘Memorial’ Back in Memorial Day

Holidays and Special Days / Holidays and Special Days : Litsa Williams

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The first November I lived in England, I was overwhelmed by the appearance of poppy pins everywhere.  Everywhere you looked someone was wearing a poppy pin, so I did what any silly American would do – I asked a friend to clue me in on what this phenomenon was all about.  Now, when you are an American living in England (particularly in a philosophy program; particularly as a woman) you anticipate that the answer you receive will always be dripping with condescension.  No exceptions this time.  I was quickly educated that this was a symbol of Remembrance Day (aka Armistice Day aka Veterans Day aka November 11th), worn in memory of fallen soldiers.  “And didn’t I know about it?  It was started by an American, after all.” 

buddy poppy poster: "Wear a V.F.W. 'Buddy' Poppy Memorial Day"

Nope.  I didn’t know about it.  Sorry for perpetuating the reputation of the stupid American, but I truly had never seen a poppy pin like it before, and I was actually feeling a bit skeptical that it was an American tradition.  But of course, you don’t know what you don’t know, and a little research quickly proved my friend entirely correct.  The tradition of wearing a poppy for fallen soldiers started in the US with Moina Michael in 1918, inspired by the John McCrae poem In Flanders Fields.  Though it did start in November, the tradition ultimately became associated with Memorial Day, as it was a day specifically for soldiers who died serving their country.  These days the poppies are a tradition that has faded in the US.  The American Legion and VFW still distribute poppies, but it is a tradition only found in certain parts of the country (making me feel slightly less absurd for not knowing about it — a Google search proved to me that I would be hard-pressed to find a poppy pin where I live.). 

This seems a sad tradition to have lost, as it was so inspiring to see in England.  The sheer number of people wearing poppy pins conveyed a national awareness and reverence for those who died in war. This is something often lost between barbeques, three-day sales, and pool openings here in the States.  With this memory of poppy pins in mind, I felt inspired to look further into Memorial Day this year (when you co-author a grief blog that only seems appropriate).  Yet again I was reminded that you don’t know what you don’t know, and the poppies were far from the only thing I didn’t know about Memorial Day.

Let’s start with what I knew . . . Memorial Day is a day to honor and remember those who died serving our country.  Schools and offices are closed.  There are parades, people visit cemeteries, and flags are placed on the graves of fallen soldiers.  There are also sales, cookouts, and other start-of-summer celebrations.  That was it – that was all I knew.

young boy visiting grave on memorial day

Lucky for me, with the wonders of the interwebs, I learned that Memorial Day (though the roots are complex and likely started informally in many parts of the country) really began as Decoration Day in 1868.  It was May 30th and was a day to decorate the graves of soldiers with flowers, with some reports saying that May 30th was chosen specifically because flowers would be in bloom. It wasn’t until the 1950s that the tradition of flags on graves began. It was not until the National Holiday Act of 1971 that Memorial Day became the last Monday in May, so it could create a three-day weekend.

Many would argue that this was when the meaning of Memorial Day started to be diluted.  Let’s be honest, a three-day weekend to kick off the summer seems like a great idea.  A day to honor and remember those who died serving our country is a powerful and important holiday.  Unfortunately, those two things just don’t go together so well.   Memories of death and war put a damper on cookouts and beach weekends, and as a society, we much prefer the latter to the former. There are those fighting to move Memorial Day back to May 30th for that very reason; to take away the three-day weekend and restore the significance of the holiday.  But in the meantime, there are plenty of ways we can, individually, celebrate Memorial Day as it was intended.  Even for those who have not lost a family member or friend serving in the military, there are many ways we can honor their sacrifice and show solidarity with those grieving the loss.

What are some ideas to put the “Memorial” back in “Memorial Day”?

1) Wear a poppy.  I will say that I searched around my area and couldn’t find anywhere selling them.  But you could even make your own to symbolically honor and remember those who died serving our country.

2) Celebrate the National Moment of Remembrance at 3 pm.  This is a time designated in 2000 to have a moment of silence or listen to Taps.  This will mean taking a break from the many other things that Memorial Day has become, to honor its original meaning.

3) Visit and decorate a loved one’s grave.  This may be someone you know who died serving their country, or it may be any family member you have lost.  Either way, take the opportunity to think of the hundreds of thousands of military men and women who have died and their families and friends.

military cemetery

4) Visit a military cemetery.  Even if you don’t know someone buried there, a military cemetery can be a powerful place to reflect on the tremendous sacrifice of those who serve.  You may choose to take flowers, flags, or other tokens to decorate the grave that has not been decorated by family or friends.

5) Attend a Memorial Day Parade.  The closest one may be a long drive, but you have the day off to honor and remember.  What better way than to take a day trip to a parade that honors and remembers those that Memorial Day is about.


6) Take photos of the things you love and value.  Those who died serving our county did so to protect freedom.  Honor them by taking photos of the things in life you love and value, knowing that these joys are thanks to those who sacrificed.

7) Not a photographer?  Journal about the things you value and appreciate thanks to those who died serving and protecting our country.

8)  Remembering a family member or friend this memorial day?  Check out our post on the many ways to honor and remember specific loved ones on special days. 

Have other ideas for Memorial Day?  Please leave a comment!  And don’t forget to subscribe to stay up to date with all our posts.

For more resources about holidays and special days, check out this section of our blog.

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4 Comments on "Putting the ‘Memorial’ Back in Memorial Day"

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  1. Douglas A Johnston  May 25, 2020 at 4:42 pm Reply

    It’s been 75 years since Erie Pyle was shot and died instantly in a ditch on the tiny island of Ie Shima, off the northwest coast of Okinawa. A draft of a column he was writing, discovered in his pocket, reminds us Memorial Day is about death — lives given at our urging; lives taken by us.
    “… it is so easy for us to forget the dead. There are so many of the living who have had burned into their brains forever the unnatural sight of cold dead men scattered over the hillsides and in the ditches. . . . Dead men in such familiar promiscuity that they become monotonous. Dead men in such monstrous infinity that you come almost to hate them. Those are the things that you at home need not even try to understand. To you at home they are columns of figures, or he is a near one who went away and just didn’t come back. You didn’t see him lying so grotesque and pasty beside the gravel road in France. We saw him, saw him by the multiple thousands. That’s the difference.”

  2. Leviticus Bennett  November 2, 2019 at 6:29 pm Reply

    Thank you so much for your tip to wear a poppy on Memorial Day. I’m thinking of visiting the graves of my ancestors who fought and died during the wars. I’d like to leave a flower arrangement for them.

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