Memorial Day: Remembering Heroes

Memorial Day, which falls on the last Monday in May, honors the men and women who died while serving in the military. This is a solemn occasion and a time to reflect on these American patriots who made the ultimate sacrifice while protecting and defending the country they loved. 

Originally called Decoration Day, from the early tradition of decorating graves with flowers, wreaths and flags, Memorial Day is a day for remembrance of those who have died in service to our country. It was first widely observed on May 30, 1868 to commemorate the sacrifices of Civil War soldiers. During that first national commemoration at Arlington National Cemetery, 5,000 participants helped to decorate the graves of the more than 20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers who were buried there.

This national event galvanized efforts to honor and remember fallen soldiers throughout the United States.

In 1873, New York was the first state to designate Memorial Day as a legal holiday.

After World War I, it became an occasion for honoring those who died in all of America’s wars and was then more widely established as a national holiday throughout the United States. Beginning in 1971, the Memorial Day holiday was officially observed on the last Monday in May.

Memorial Day is commemorated at Arlington National Cemetery each year with a ceremony in which a small American flag is placed on each grave. Traditionally, the President or Vice President lays a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

I have been fascinated by the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington Cemetery for years.

It is an intensely beautiful military ceremony that speaks to the discipline, honor and dedication of the elite “Old Guard” and the epitome of military training. Twenty-four hours a day, soldiers from the “The Old Guard,” the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, stand watch over the Tomb. The Tomb Guards, also called Sentinels, are chosen for this prestigious and highly selective post only after rigorous training and a demanding series of examinations. The dedication that these young men and women exhibit is astounding in today’s world of instant gratification. 

This national holiday may also be the unofficial start of the summer season, but all Americans must take a moment to remember the sacrifice of our valiant military service members, first responders and their families. Memorial Day is a day of both celebration and grief, accounting for the honor of our heroes and reflecting on their tragic loss. 

If interested, you can watch PBS coverage of the changing of the guard here


The tradition of wearing red poppies on Memorial Day was inspired by the 1915 poem “In Flanders Fields” by John McCrea. War worker Moina Michael made a personal pledge to always wear red silk poppies as an emblem of “keeping the faith with all who died,” and began a tradition that was adopted in the United States, England, France, Australia and more than 50 other countries. There is an exceptional museum in Ypers, Belgium called In Flanders Field Museum; if you have the opportunity to visit it, you will not regret it.

In Flanders Fields


In Flanders fields the poppies blow

Between the crosses, row on row,

    That mark our place; and in the sky

    The larks, still bravely singing, fly

Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago

We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,

    Loved and were loved, and now we lie,

        In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:

To you from failing hands we throw

    The torch; be yours to hold it high.

    If ye break faith with us who die

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow

        In Flanders fields.

Bagpiper playing under the American and California flags against a partly cloudy sky

Photo by Michael Van Auken