This holiday should be a true memorial to nation’s war dead
Congress declared Memorial Day the official name in 1967. In 1968, Congress moved the date from May 30 to the last Monday in May, effective in 1971.
Updated: May 23, 2012 3:44PM
In the heart of downtown Waterloo, N.Y., in the Finger Lakes region between Syracuse and Rochester, sits a red-bricked building that houses the national Memorial Day Museum.
Its mission is to tell the nation the history of Memorial Day, which most of us will celebrate this weekend with picnics, barbecues, parties, short day trips and a long weekend.
The idea of a national Memorial Day may have sprung from the mind of Waterloo druggist Henry C. Wells, who by the fall of 1865 sought a way to honor the fallen dead of the Civil War, but today it is the official start of summer.
It was a more somber day back then.
By 1868, John Logan of Illinois, by then the commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, adopted the idea of a national Decoration Day. He designated May 30 as the day to decorate the graves of the soldiers who died in the Civil War.
And so it was for most Americans in the decades that followed. Decoration Day honored those who died in the Civil War.
As the years went on, the Civil War veterans were thought of in much the same way we think of our aging World War II veterans today, as the greatest generation. There were gatherings and speeches and parades.
In Oak Park, Ernest Hemingway’s grandfather Anson Hemingway would put on the federal blue uniform that he wore at Vicksburg and march in the annual parade held in the village. By the early 1900s, little Ernest would watch his grandfather march in the parade.
As the 20th century wore on, and as fewer veterans remained, the holiday became for many Americans a general day of remembrance for their deceased relatives, whether they served in the Civil War or not.
After World War II, Memorial Day became the more common reference for the holiday while some old-timers still called it Decoration Day. Congress declared Memorial Day the official name in 1967. In 1968, Congress moved the date from May 30 to the last Monday in May to give everyone a long weekend every year, effective in 1971.
Since then, many feel Memorial Day has lost its meaning because of the three-day weekend. Merchants tout Memorial Day sales, towns host celebratory parades, and neighborhoods are filled with summer barbecues.
During my term as an editor, I had to chide many young reporters who wrote about Memorial Day as the national holiday to honor America’s veterans. That’s Veteran’s Day, I would tell them. Memorial Day honors the war dead.
And once, we did take time to honor the war dead.