Today we celebrate Memorial Day, as an official date to honor and to decorate the graves of those who perished in the wars and skirmishes of the United States. In 1869 this time of year was called DECORATION DAY, and was mainly focused on those who had recently died during the Civil War, as the following article describes.
D E C O R A T I O N D A Y
The thirtieth day of May is likely to become of as much consequence and to be generally observed throughout the North as is the anniversary of American Independence, though observed in a very different manner but not with less enthusiasm. The 30th of May, 1869, will be the first anniversary of the day set apart and forever to be observed for decorating with flowers and tokens of remembrance the hallowed graves of those who perished in the late desperate struggle to save the life of the nation when assailed by its enemies and foes of equal rights to all men. On the 30th of May, 1868, the Grand Army of the Republic, that noble band of patriots who still remain pledged to guard the honor of the nation and if need be die in her defense, inaugurated the beautiful ceremony of decorating the graves of their fallen comrades, and under their direction and superintendence like ceremonies will be observed for years to come. This year the day falls on Sunday, and Gen. Logan, the Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Army, designates two days, the 29th and 30th, on either of which the ceremonies may be performed, leaving it optional with the several Posts which of the two days shall be observed. This is a matter in which every one should take a deep interest, and all, whether members of the organization or not, should render all the aid and assistance in their power to secure a proper respect for the ceremonies and a universal observance of the day. It will bring many sad remembrances to thousands of bereaved hearts, which will neverthless be cheered by the thought that neither the comrades of their fallen friends nor the great and thankful nation will ever forget those who laid their lives upon their country’s altar. It is right and proper that all of us should be reminded that we are enjoying the blessings of a government which these sleeping heroes fought for and maintained, and in no way can we be so forcibly and impressively reminded of it as by the beautiful ceremonies which will henceforth mark the anniversary of Decoration Day.
One thing connected with the observance of the day, we regret, and that is the permission given by the Commander-in-Chief to perform the ceremonies on Sunday if thought advisable by the different Posts. The occasion will be a solemn one, it is true, and most of the proceedings would be eminently fitting for the sacred Sabbath; but the inevitable accompaniments of a ceremony conducted on so large a scale, the moving of processions (through the streets, the strains of martial music, the spectators crowding the sidewalks, and the general effect of a secular holiday, would be quite out of keeping with the usual peaceful Sunday of New England. We hope and believe that those having control of the ceremonies will look upon this matter in the same light that we do, and that whenever the anniversary occurs on Sunday, the preceding Saturday or the following Monday will, by a general order from the Commander-in-Chief, be observed as the day for commemorating the fall of our country’s defenders.”
Federal law changed the observance of the holiday (now called Memorial Day) in 1971 to the last Monday in May and extended it to honor all those who died in American wars. Tribute is paid not only with flowers, but also with speeches and parades.
Snopes: Origin of Memorial Day