What is Memorial Day?

By Brooke Mansfield

First, we should look back at history. Memorial Day was originally called Decoration Day. It was three years after the Civil War when the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) created a day to decorate the graves of the fallen soldiers. The primary purpose was to decorate the graves of the 600,000 to 800,000 graves of Union and Confederate soldiers who were killed.

It was not until 1968 that Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act in order to create a 3-day weekend for federal employees. The change went into effect in 1971.

Most people think of Memorial Day as a three-day weekend that marks the official start of Summer.  We have BBQs, retailers have massive sales, and families plan camping trips and other vacations.  We look forward to the extra day off from our grueling 9-5 responsibilities.

Memorial Day to Gold Star families has an entirely different meeting.  What is a Gold Star family?  That’s another article, but in short, it is a family whose family member has died while serving our country or who died after being honorably discharged from his/her service.

Memorial Day is NOT a time to thank a service member for their service. That is done on Veteran’s Day.  It would be like saying to someone “Happy funeral.” We don’t say “Happy 9/11.” You just wouldn’t.  It is the same with Memorial Day.

To the families who have buried their soldiers, Memorial Day is a day to remember their deceased loved one – and an opportunity for our nation to honor those who have died in service to our country as well. 

It is deeply personal to the Gold Star families. It is a bit humbling to think that a majority of our great nation knows what the holiday means and will take a part of their day to acknowledge the sacrifices made by men and women who served in our military.

For me, personally, I “boycott” any retail shopping of Memorial Day sales.  To me, it’s not about saving a few bucks on a purchase. It just sits wrong with me for retailers to hustle sales on the backs of our war dead.  That may be an extreme view to some.

While our nation still decorates the graves of our war dead – we’ve all seen Arlington National Cemetery with flags on all the graves and perhaps you have noticed flags here and there as you drive past your local cemetery.  For the Gold Star family, it is decorating the grave of their loved one.

We Gold Stars will attend the parades and the BBQs, but many of us are also at our local cemeteries with members of the American Legion or local Veterans of Foreign War placing flags on the graves of our local military.  The National Anthem means something a bit different to us now.

My view on Memorial Day has definitely changed since becoming a Gold Star mother.  It is personal to me and at the same time, a feeling of belonging to something much bigger than myself.  I not only honor my son, but other family members who served and who have died – my sister, my great aunt, my grandparents, and great-great-grandparents.

This Memorial Day and the days leading up to it, I hope you will consider reaching out to your local VFW or American Legion and volunteer to place flags on veteran graves. Those flags need to be picked up after as well, so maybe help out then too.  Attend a local parade.  Be mindful as you enjoy the weekend of the history of Memorial Day and its true meaning.

When you see someone wearing a cap or t-shirt indicating that they are a member of our military remember that they are remembering their fallen friends, men and women they served with, many of whom died in combat.  Do not say “Happy Memorial Day.”  Instead, try “I will be thinking about those who are no longer with us” or “I will take a moment today to remember and honor our fallen.”



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