When Decoration Day Became Memorial Day, and Why It Still Matters  

By Stephen J. Silverberg
New York Elder Law Attorney

Memorial Day is a topic I return to every May because it is important to honor the Americans who gave their lives in service to our great nation. It’s a national holiday with a somber and respectful history, and we need, especially now, to keep that in mind.

Our activities on Memorial Day should include remembering and honoring the lives and sacrifices of our veterans—and their families.

For me, this last weekend of May will always be Decoration Day.

Decoration Day began in 1868 when General John A. Logan called for a holiday to honor the soldiers who died in the Civil War. Women placed flowers on the graves of their husbands, sons, and brothers. 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.

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

Some civic groups and veterans’ groups continue to honor our servicemen and women by taking the time to attend ceremonies and decorate the graves of soldiers. Flags should be flown at half-mast until noon on Memorial day and a national moment of silence takes place at 3:00 pm.

Here on Long Island, we have two large military cemeteries – Long Island National Cemetery in Farmingdale and Calverton National Cemetery. We have a large population of veterans and families who know all too well the impact of the ultimate sacrifice their loved ones made for their country.

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.

I encourage you to find out where your town’s wreath ceremony is taking place and take the time to show your support. On Long Island, ceremonies take place at town halls, fire departments and other civic centers. Your presence will be appreciated.

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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.