Memorial Day, observed on the last Monday of May, honors those who have died while serving in the military. It is common for individuals to visit cemeteries and memorials or volunteer to place flags on the graves of fallen soldiers on this day.
The origins of Memorial Day. Memorial Day has its origins, according to CNN, as "a response to the unprecedented carnage of the Civil War, in which some 620,000 soldiers on both sides died." This led to spontaneous memorials at gravesites in both the North and South. In 1864, for example, a group of women in Pennsylvania decorated the graves of those who died at Gettysburg. Waterloo, N.Y., began a community-wide yearly observance of Memorial Day in 1866. It was later recognized by Congress as the "birthplace of Memorial Day."
How the date was determined. In 1868, Gen. Logan of the Grand Army of the Republic announced the official setting aside of May 30, "for the purpose of strewing with flowers, or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion …" This observance became known as Decoration Day. The name Memorial Day didn't appear until 1882. The name Decoration Day, however, still remained popular up until World War II. In 1873, New York was the first state to recognize Memorial Day as a holiday. The holiday was eventually changed to the last Monday in May.
Memorial Day traditions. There are no prescribed ceremonies for Memorial Day. Several customs, however, have become traditions. Flags are normally flown at half mast until noon on Memorial Day and flown at full mast until sunset. The World War I poem, "In Flanders Field," has led to the wearing of red poppies. Arlington National Cemetery is the center of Memorial Day observances near the nation's capital with the president of the United States or another high-ranking dignitary giving a memorial address at the cemetery's amphitheater. Each grave in the cemetery is also decorated with a small American flag.
Memorial Day also marks the unofficial beginning of summer and many Americans use the day off to spend time with family and friends at barbecues, parks, beaches and other places of recreation.