I vividly recall from my childhood the prominence of Memorial Day among the pantheon of holidays. It was one of the two big civic holidays. The other being the Fourth of July. At a young age I could sense the difference between the two – one celebratory and one solemn. Memorial Day is larger in my memory. The holiday was specifically to remember the dead of war, but the event was broader in that it was also an opportunity to visit and reflect more generally on relatives and friends who had passed. It also related to the continuation of a tradition that emerged in the mid-1800s that made cemeteries places for peaceful meditation with nature’s beauty and communing with one’s family and friends – both living and dead. As can be said of many traditions – times have changed.
After the Civil War ended many communities began to hold spring memorial gatherings to remember the war dead. In 1868, a Northern veteran organization, the Grand Army of the Republic, formalized and spread the growing tradition by calling for “Decoration Day” to be a national day of remembrance. Each spring communities would gather 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.”