Isabel Diaz of Fresno, California, cleans the headstone of her husband Phillip Diaz, a World War II Navy veteran, in preparation for Memorial Day. Each year some 5,000 to 6,000 U.S. flags are placed on the headstones of deceased service personnel in this cemetery. On Memorial Day millions of Americans visit cemeteries to honor members of the U.S. military who died in defense of their country.
On May 31, 2010 U.S. Ambassador
to Uruguay David D. Nelson and his wife Gloria
joined U.S. servicemen in honoring fallen
U.S. military personnel buried at the British
Cemetery in Montevideo. [PHOTO
The Memorial Day holiday celebrated by Americans
on the last Monday of May represents for many the unofficial
beginning of summer. Many will travel over the long holiday
weekend to seek out friends and family, beaches and amusement
parks. But most will pause at some point to recall the holiday’s
true purpose: honoring those who died defending their nation.
Memorial Day entertainments throughout the United States
range from large sporting events to quintessentially small-town
celebrations. The Indianapolis ("Indy") 500 motor
race, by some measures the world's largest single-day sporting
event, attracts an estimated global audience of more than
Meanwhile, in Waterloo, New York -- the place where Memorial
Day began (at least according to Waterloo) -- festivities
include a parade, arts and crafts show, a strawberry festival,
music, tours of the town’s Civil War museum and an
antique car show. Civil War buffs in period uniforms and
dresses hold a two-night encampment and stand by for live
cannon fire demonstrations. Those not too full from the
pizza-eating contest can compete in a 5-kilometer race.
The story of Waterloo, and that of the holiday itself,
is woven deeply into the nation's history.
During the American Civil War of 1861-1865, which claimed
the lives of more than 550,000 people, many citizens began
to place flowers on the graves of the war dead. A number
of northern municipalities continued these "Decoration
Days" after the war ended, but the decisive event occurred
in 1866 in Waterloo, 450 kilometers from New York City.
THE FIRST ANNUAL OBSERVANCE
In 1865, Waterloo resident Henry C. Welles, the town's
druggist, hit on the idea of formally setting aside a day
to honor those killed in the war. He was supported by one
of his customers, John B. Murray, who had risen to the rank
of brigadier general in the Union (northern) Army, and Murray’s
friend, Major General John A. Logan, another retired Union
commander. In 1866 Waterloo held the first formal, village-wide,
annual observance of a day dedicated to honoring the war
dead, and it has continued to do so for 142 years. On Memorial
Day weekend, visitors inflate the town’s population
to several times its normal size (5,118 according to its
Logan, founder of the Grand Army of the Republic, an organization
of Union veterans, in 1868 designated May 30 as a day "for
strewing with flowers, or otherwise decorating the graves
of comrades who died in defense of their country during
the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every
city, village, and hamlet churchyard in the land."
Among the ceremonies held that day was one at Arlington
National Cemetery in Virginia, across the Potomac River
from Washington. President Ulysses S. Grant presided. After
the speeches and tributes, thousands of war orphans, veterans
and others decorated the graves of the Civil War dead. There
were more than 20,000 such graves at Arlington Cemetery
The Arlington National Cemetery
By the turn of the century, nearly every state had declared
Decoration Day an official holiday. After World War I, Decoration
Day was expanded to honor those killed in all of the nation's
wars, and after World War II it became known as Memorial
Day. (Veterans Day, which honors all veterans, living and
dead, is celebrated each year on November 11.)
Several Northern and Southern cities claim to be the originators
of Memorial Day, but in 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson
proclaimed Waterloo, New York, as its official birthplace.
Congress established Memorial Day as a federal holiday
in 1971 and fixed its observance on the last Monday in May.
HONORING OUR WAR DEAD
The original Waterloo commemoration centered on the decoration
of soldiers' graves, the lowering of flags to fly at half-staff,
and the organization of veterans' parades. These ceremonies
continue in cities and towns across the nation on Memorial
Day. The U.S. president or vice president typically presides
at Arlington National Cemetery, where a small American flag
is placed on each grave. Solemn observances are held at
Civil War battle sites, including Gettysburg, Pennsylvania,
and Sharpsburg (Antietam), Maryland.
At 3 p.m., a National Moment of Remembrance unites Americans
in prayer and thought as they contemplate the sacrifices
made in their behalf.
Thus, even as Americans enjoy their long weekend and the
prospect of summer, they also can be found in more somber
moods. Wreaths will be laid, thanks given and heads bowed
in recognition of those who made the ultimate sacrifice.