Today is marks the federal holiday where remember those who have died in service to our nation. Originally it was known as Decoration Day, but as to the birthplace of Memorial Day we cannot say for sure as there are many cities/towns that lay claim to this holiday. It's likely that there were many separate beginnings that came about after the Civil War.
Memorial Day was officially proclaimed on May 5th, 1868, by General John A. Logan who was National Commander of the Grand Army of the Republic which was a fraternal organization composed of veterans of the Union Army, US Navy, Marines and Revenue Cutter Service who served in the American Civil War. This day was first observed on May 30th, 1868, when flowers were placed on graves of Union and Confederate soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery.
The State of New York was the first state to officially recognize this holiday which they did in the year 1873 and caught on by the Northern states by 1890. The Southern states refused to acknowledge the day until after WWI when the day changed from honoring just those who died fighting in the Civil War to honoring American who died fighting in any war. Today it is celebrated by most every State on the last Monday in May as authorized by the US Congress in the National Holiday Act of 1971.
Although not necessarily tied with Memorial Day, this poem is a popularly known and used in regards to those who have died in war:
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
This poem was written by LTC John McCrae in 1915 who wrote this after presiding over the funeral of a friend and fellow soldier who died in the Second Battle of Ypres. It makes reference to the red poppies that grew over the graves of fallen soldiers resulted in the remembrance poppy becoming one of the world's most recognized memorial symbols for soldiers who have died in conflict. In 1915, inspired by McCrae's poem, Moina Michael replied with her own poem:
We cherish too, the Poppy red
That grows on fields where valor led,
It seems to signal to the skies
That blood of heroes never dies.
She thought of the idea of wearing the red poppy on Memorial Day to honor the Departed. She started selling red poppies and all funds benefited servicemen in need. This tradition would spread to Europe by the efforts of Madam Guerin who while visiting the US learned of this custom of Ms. Michael. Eventually the VFW would get involved and nationally started selling poppies. There are various traditions around the nation for Memorial Day, most prominent is the placing of flags to the graves of the deceased.
Traditional observance of this holiday has diminished and many see it as the start of summer vacation where they go camping or have BBQs with all of their friends and families rather than remember the meaning and traditions of this day. Some believe that this occurred as a result of the 1971 Act which gave federal employees a 3-day weekend and made it easier for people to be distracted from the true meaning, thus undermining the intent of the holiday.
In recent times there have been pushes to reform and return to celebrate this day and the honored dead. In 2000, the National Moment of Remembrance was passed which asks that at 3PM (local time) for all Americans to "voluntarily and informally observe in their own way a Moment of remembrance and respect, pausing from whatever they are doing for a moment of silence or listening to 'Taps'." I for one look forward to a return to a day of more solemnity and honor.
In honor of those who have given their all for the service of our nation, I will leave you with this poem written by Father Dennis Edward O'Brien of the United States Marine Corps:
It's the soldier, not the reporter who has given us freedom of the press.
It's the soldier, not the poet, who has given us freedom of speech.
It's the soldier, not the campus organizer, who has given us the freedom to demonstrate.
It's the soldier, not the lawyer, who has given us the right to a fair trial.
It's the soldier who salutes the flag, serves under the flag and whose coffin is draped by the flag, who gives the protestor the right to burn the flag.