What is 'Memorial Day' and why is it observed in US?

Memorial Day was formerly known as "Decoration Day" and is celebrated on the last Monday of May

By Web Desk
May 29, 2023
A man visits the Eastern Shore Veterans Cemetery in Hurlock, Maryland, on May 27, 2023, ahead of the Memorial Day holiday. — AFP

Activities for Memorial Day are crowded with families taking vacations with their kids and visiting beaches. What is the day actually about, aside from all these entertainment?

The holiday, previously known as "Decoration Day," is observed on the final Monday of May to remember those soldiers and other military personnel who gave their lives for the United States.


Memorial Day became a national holiday in 1971 thanks to a law that the US Congress passed that had its roots in the American Civil War. Here are some key observations for the day:

Brief history of American Civil War

The nationwide holiday has its roots in the US Civil War, which nearly wiped out 2% of the population. According to one account, three women in October 1864 went to a local cemetery and placed flowers on the graves of the dead men who had sacrificed their lives while serving the union.

After the end of the war, a large procession was conducted in May 1865 in the destroyed city of Charleston, South Carolina, where thousands of black US citizens, liberated just months earlier from slavery, remembered those buried in mass graves at a former racecourse.

3,000 school children led the service with roses, singing the Union song "John Brown's Body". Historical accounts note that hundreds of women followed with baskets of flowers, wreaths, and crosses.

Cities in the North and South began honouring the dead. Waterloo, NY, was decorated in May 1866 with flags at half-staff, "draped with evergreens and mourning black".

Why is it Memorial Day?

According to historians, the first commemoration was held in 1868 after Gen John A Logan, the commander in chief of the Grand Army of the Republic — an organisation of Union veterans — called for a national holiday to remember the dead people of the Civil War.

He said: "Their bodies lay in almost every city, village, and churchyard."

Gen Logan, on May 30, wrote an order that it should be "designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defence of their country".

The remembrance day was regarded for many years as "Decoration Day", but as it represented all those who had died serving their country, US citizens started to call it Memorial Day.

In this aerial view, a man visits the Eastern Shore Veterans Cemetery in Hurlock, Maryland, on May 27, 2023, ahead of the Memorial Day holiday. — AFP

In one of the first references to commemoration, an article published in the New York Times back in May 1870 described processions in New York City and Brooklyn (then separate cities), among other places.

The story noted that, aside from Independence Day, there was "no day that calls out the patriotic feelings of our people more than Memorial Day," which was a national holiday not by any enactment by the legislature but by "the general consent of the people".

Congress officially changed the commemoration's name in 1967, and a few years later, the government mandated that Memorial Day take place on the last Monday of the month rather than on May 30.

The change went into effect in 1971. The same law also declared Memorial Day a federal holiday.

How Memorial Day differs from Veterans Day

After its evolution, Memorial Day is celebrated to honour the war dead, but Veterans Day is only celebrated to remember those who served in the military.

Veterans Day is annually observed on November 11, which was originally called Armistice Day. It was due to the armistice at the end of World War I in 1918.

A man visits friends he lost in the 2004 Battle of Fallujah, with his daughters in Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery, prior to Memorial Day weekend, in Arlington, Virginia, May 26, 2023. — AFP

It was later broadened in the 1950s to include all war veterans.

Both commemorations have become similar. But, after World War I, veterans "wanted a commemoration of their own, which North and South could celebrate together," Henry W. Brands, a professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin, told the New York Times.