Why Did Decoration Day Become Memorial Day, and Why Does It Matter?

By Stephen J. Silverberg
New York Elder Law Attorney

Every May, I find myself looking at the calendar and thinking about Decoration Day.

Most of you know the last weekend in May as Memorial Day, and this year it’s likely you have plans to gather in person with family and friends at an outdoor event. You may have summer memories of parades with veterans, high school marching bands, local Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, barbeques, and picnics. My family took trips north to the Catskill Mountains when all the old-fashioned roadside signs highlighted the star performers scheduled for the holiday weekend. Decoration Day was a big deal.

Decoration Day began in 1868 when General John A. Logan called for a holiday to honor the soldiers who died in the Civil War. On the first Decoration Day, 5,000 people helped decorate the graves of the over 20,000 soldiers buried in Arlington National Cemetery – both Union and Confederate soldiers.

Similar ceremonies inspired the event in cities around the country. Soldiers would decorate the graves of fallen comrades with flags, wreaths, and flowers. By 1890, every Union state had a Decoration Day.

After World War I, the purpose of Decoration Day expanded to honor all soldiers who died in all American wars. It was considered a day of civic duty to honor the dead and remember why they gave their lives.

As the years and wars have come and gone, Decoration Day became Memorial Day. Unlike Veterans Day, which honors all who serve, the traditions of Memorial Day honor those who gave their lives in service to our nation.

In 1971, Congress declared a national holiday on the last Monday in May.

For many veterans who know firsthand the experience of losing a trusted comrade in battle, that Memorial Day is only about sales, barbeques, and summertime fun is frustrating. Once a solemn holiday, I believe it is time to return at least part of the day to the concept of honoring the people who lost their lives in service to our country.

What can you do?

  • Visit a military cemetery and bring small flags. Decorate graves where it seems no one has visited.
  • Visit your local fire department in the morning before the parade, when most hold a memorial service to honor fallen soldiers.
  • Support an organization that helps veterans. The rate of veteran suicide and homelessness in America is embarrassingly high.

Celebrate and enjoy Memorial Day with friends and family. But remember how it began, and let’s honor those who gave their lives to protect our democracy.

About the Author
Stephen J. Silverberg is nationally recognized as a leader in the areas of estate planning, estate administration, asset preservation planning, and elder law. He is a past president of the prestigious National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys (NAELA), and a founding member and past president of the New York State chapter of NAELA.