A different kind of Memorial Day

by Jim Lundstrom

Memorial Day services in Washington, D.C., on May 30, 1918, culminated with casting flowers into the Potomac River in memory of those who died on the Lusitania. US Army Corps of Engineers photo.

With the Memorial Day weekend ahead of us, the time seems appropriate to remember the beginnings of this day of remembrance.

No, it did not begin as a three-day weekend kickoff to summer, but it does seem to have morphed into that.

Memorial Day began with that name in the 1870s as a way to remember the Civil War fallen. May 30 was the day chosen to honor the war dead, and it was celebrated on May 30 for 100 years, no matter what day that date fell on. And for much of that time, the day was known as Remembrance Day or Decoration Day. It wasn’t until another war – World War I – that the day was used to recognize more than victims of the Civil War.

And then it would be another 50 years – in 1968 – when Memorial Day was given national holiday status, with government offices, banks and most businesses closed for a three-day weekend, because the holiday was anchored to the last Monday of May.

The change to an anchored day for Memorial Day did not sit well with some veterans’ groups. They feared – rightly – that turning it into the last day of a three-day weekend would diminish the power of the day of remembrance, however, Congress has not been interested in returning to a May 30 observance of Memorial Day. And it would take an act of congress to change the 1968 Uniform Monday Holiday Act that created the Memorial Day Weekend (along with Washington’s Birthday or President’s Day as we now know it, Labor Day, Columbus Day and Veterans Day).

Not that that august body hasn’t legislatively tampered with Memorial Day. In 2000 Congress passed legislation encouraging all Americans to pause on Memorial Day for a National Moment of Remembrance at 3 pm local time.
This Memorial Day of 2020 will happen without the large public gatherings at places like Fort Snelling National Cemetery, but surely there will still be the family gatherings and outdoor activities such as grilling and boating that so many associate with the three-day weekend.

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Who’s on first? More than 20 towns all claim to hold the honor of being the first to celebrate fallen soldiers.

Boalsburg, Pennsylvania, bases its claim on an 1864 gathering of women to mourn those recently killed at Gettysburg.

Carbondale, Illinois, residents are certain they were first, thanks to an 1866 parade led, in part, by John Logan who two years later would lead the charge for an official holiday.

Only one town, however, has received the official seal of approval from the U.S. government. In 1966, 100 years after the town of Waterloo, New York, shuttered its businesses and took to the streets for the first of many continuous, community-wide celebrations, President Lyndon Johnson signed legislation, recently passed by the U.S. Congress, declaring the tiny upstate village the “official” birthplace of Memorial Day.

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Fort Snelling National Cemetery is the home of the first all-volunteer Memorial Rifle Squad (MRS) in the National Cemetery Administration. Upon request, the MRS will perform funeral honors daily for as many as 17 veterans between the hours of 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. (No services are scheduled on Saturday, Sunday or federal holidays).

Each funeral honor ceremony includes a color guard, a rifle volley, the folding and presentation of the flag, and a live bugler playing “Taps.” The MRS normally fields 21+ volunteer members for each service. MRS personnel are all veterans and members of local veteran service organizations. They have rendered the final salute for more than 70,000 veterans. The MRS has never missed a scheduled service during their existence.

MRS funeral honor ceremonies are provided at no cost to the family and can be arranged by the funeral director and/or the family through the National Cemetery Scheduling Office, 800-535-1117. For additional information, contact the cemetery office at 612-726-1127.

Upon request, military funeral honors can be provided by the Department of Defense. At a minimum, the Department of Defense military funeral honors ceremony consists of a two-person uniformed detail folding and presenting the flag and the playing of “Taps” (played by a ceremonial bugle, or electronic recording if a live bugler is unavailable). Arrangements for military funeral honors are the responsibility of the funeral director and/or the family. Arrangements can be made by contacting the Department of Defense Honors – 877-645-4667.