A Brief History of Memorial Day

A Brief History of Memorial Day

The American Civil War ended on April 9th, 1865, and approximately 13 months later, the first observance of Memorial Day occurred. It began as women visited the graves of their sons, fathers, husbands, and brothers to lay flowers on or beside their gravestones. In the 1860’s, print media was the standard for spreading information, and word had developed of such observances for the dead men of the Civil War and many towns shadowed these women's' example. The first national celebration was held in 1868 at Arlington National Cemetery where the bones of both Confederate and Union soldiers were laid. It was a day of remembrance for the fallen, no matter which side of the conflict, all American’s were honored with flowers and a flag by their respective gravestones, suggesting unity and perhaps some healing had taken place in the again, United States.

Theodor Horydczak, photographer, ca. 1920-1950. 

Memorial Day was changed from May 30th to the final Monday in May in 1971, this time the holiday was to include remembrance, reflection, and gratitude for all fallen U.S. military members from every national conflict. It was at this time that soldiers who had served with the fallen would visit their friend’s graves, they were said to have left coins and rocks instead of flowers on the gravestones. They did this because in the late 1960s and early 1970s it was not a popular time to be affiliated with U.S. military and less attention would be brought to them upon their visit. Though no one is sure precisely when it started, we know that the higher the value of the coin the closer they were to the fallen soldier and the coin serves as a friendly message to the family members of the deceased. A penny tells the family someone has visited; a nickel tells them that you trained with the deceased in basic training/boot camp. A dime means that you served in the unit or with the deceased at some point, and a quarter is said to mean you were present when they passed. Since the 1971 national observance for all soldiers, the holiday has looked the same as it does today: a wreath is laid on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery.

You may notice on Memorial Day in 2024 your town hosts a parade, or perhaps a sudden showing of American Flags in your neighborhood. For some, Memorial Day is nothing more than a three-day weekend and an opportunity to hit the lake or beach with a drink in hand. Though I urge you to thoughtfully consider the sons and daughters of fallen warriors who will be without their parent this holiday weekend. Consider the spouse, the parents, and the siblings who won’t be smiling and waving in a parade but rather they will be visiting a grave. And of course, consider those who served along side the men and women we have buried, who not only visit graves with coins in hand, but revisit the memories of the day they lost their friends with regret and torment.

If you know a Veteran that has been impacted by the loss of a fellow service member, reach out to them and vocalize your support for them. Make yourself available to them. If you find yourself with a bunch of friends at the lake or drinking around the fire– take some of this Memorial Day history with you and start a conversation about our fallen heroes, do a workout named after one of them, or better yet, visit a veteran cemetery near you. Make the deliberate decision to honor our nation’s heroes, and bring some coins to leave behind as well.

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