Memorial Day 2024

May 24, 2024

Next Monday, May 27, is Memorial Day in the United States, a day to pause, reflect, and remember the brave servicemen and women who sacrificed their lives for our freedom.

Burying and honoring the dead has been a tradition of humanity that is so old, that there is little to no history of its origins. Many of the world’s most admired and respected feats of engineering, including the Pyramids of Egypt and the Taj Mahal, are graves dedicated to someone’s memory. 

In the United States, decorating soldiers’ graves did not start until the Civil War. As servicemen died fighting their countrymen, their bodies were laid to rest and their graves were decorated by loved ones. This started primarily in the South with the tradition spreading to the North shortly afterward. There were two important milestones in transforming Memorial Day into the holiday it is today. The first was in Waterloo, New York, where the town celebrated its lost soldiers on May 5, 1866, by closing businesses and decorating graves. For the government, this is considered the first celebration of Memorial Day. Secondly, the veterans’ group, The Grand Army of the Republic, called for a “Dedication Day” in 1868 and the states soon after enacted their versions of it. These original celebrations centered around the Civil War but slowly evolved to honor all the soldiers who died for our country as wars were thrust upon the people time and time again. 

Today’s celebration of Memorial Day is marked by decorating the graves of service members with American Flags, the lowering of flags to half-staff until noon, parades, a national moment of silence at 3:00 p.m., speeches, and gun salutes. It was nationally codified by Congress in 1968 to be the last Monday of May, rather than the traditional day of May 30.

Memorial Day is often misconstrued to originate from the Battle of Gettysburg. The three-day bloodshed resulted in more than 50,000 casualties, which was roughly a third of all troops at the battle. Though the Union won, it was a sign of the countless losses that both sides would endure with their more modern weaponry against old tactics. The battle prompted the creation of the Gettysburg National Cemetery, which was dedicated on November 19, 1863. There, President Lincoln gave his famous Gettysburg Address, where he said: 

It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth. (Lincoln “Gettysburg Address”)

We should heed President Lincoln’s words by dedicating Memorial Day to the unfinished work our service members have fought for creating a more perfect union, uplifting others, using our freedoms, and preserving the great experiment that is our fragile Republic.

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