Memorial Day: What this Federal Holiday Really Means

memorial day
Memorial Day at Beaufort National Cemetery. Photo by Eric R. Smith

Memorial Day is a day to remember and to be thankful for all those who have given their lives for our country. Those who have made the ultimate sacrifice so that our country and our lives could endure.

When most people think of Memorial Day, they think of backyard barbecues, trips to Hunting Island beach or the Beaufort sandbar, or lounging around the pool. To many American’s, Memorial Day weekend is nothing more the unofficial beginning of summer. But if you ask a veteran what this day means, you’ll get a different answer. They know the realities behind this special day.

Memorial Day’s beginnings date back to 1866 when women in both the North and the South began gathering to honor those killed in the Civil War by placing flowers on their graves. One of the first “Decoration Days,” as it was sometimes called, took place in a Southern cemetery. When the women placing flowers saw the neglected graves of Union soldiers, they kindly made a point to honor them as well by placing flowers on their graves too.

It was the first of many acts that would start healing that terrible wound from the Civil War.

It wasn’t until after World War I that the ceremonies were expanded to honor those who died in all American wars.

Memorial Day or Decoration Day was declared a national holiday in 1971 and placed on the last Monday in May.

At the first Memorial Day ceremony held in Arlington National Cemetery, small flags were placed at every marker, starting a tradition that is carried on to this day in National Cemeteries all over the country, including the Beaufort National Cemetery here at home.

In 2000, Congress passed and President George W. Bush signed into law, “The National Moment of Remembrance Act — to encourage the people of the United States to give something back to their country which provides them with so much freedom and opportunity.”  The National Moment of Remembrance Act “encourages all Americans to pause wherever they are at 3:00 local time on Memorial Day for a minute of silence to remember and honor those who have died in service to the nation.”

In all the American wars there have been 651,008 Battle Deaths; and about 1.2 million deaths during service in war time. About 42 million people have served in the military during wartime, and about 1/50th of the people serving during a time of war have died. Remember that it took the blood of thousands over the centuries to allow us all the opportunity to be here to celebrate Memorial Day this year.