Carl Mays: Memorial Day much more than just a long weekend

May. 23, 2013 @ 11:35 PM

Born and reared in the West Tennessee town of Humboldt, I grew up with a knowledge of and respect for Memorial Day, frequently referred to or combined with Decoration Day.

It seemed to me that both names were – and still are – very appropriate. Our family would host relatives or we would visit them. We’d have a big meal, adults would rehash family stories, while children quickly ate and went out to play. Focused into the entire event was our solemn visits to cemeteries where flowers were placed on ancestral graves that had been previously cleaned.

It’s a little confusing exactly how Decoration Day and/or Memorial Day came to be. Print and electronic references present various possibilities.

National Public Radio featured a 2011 story titled “Decoration Day: The South Honors Its Dead.” The show’s host opened the program saying, “It is Memorial Day weekend, and as Americans prepare to mark the holiday, rural communities in the south have been gathering to clean and decorate cemeteries. This is a longstanding tradition known as Decoration Day.”

The show went on to report that folklorist research indicates that Decoration Day could be the predecessor to Memorial Day. On the show, Alan Jabbour, author of the book “Decoration Day in the Mountains,” said he now believes the Southern tradition of Decoration Day was the inspiration for Northerners after the Civil War to create Memorial Day.

He said one big difference is that Memorial Day is on a set date, while Decoration Day (which can also be found in the North) varies by community.

One website titled “Memorial Day History” reports, “Memorial Day, originally called Decoration Day, is a day of remembrance for those who have died in our nation’s military service. There are many stories as to its actual beginnings, with over two dozen cities and towns laying claim to being the birthplace. There is also evidence that organized women’s groups in the South were decorating graves before the end of the Civil War.”

This same site goes on to report, “Memorial Day was officially proclaimed on May 5, 1868 by General John Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), and was first observed on May 30, 1868 when flowers were placed on the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery.” Another site explains that the GAR was a fraternal organization composed of veterans of the Union Army, U.S. Navy, Marines and Revenue Cutter Service (maritime law enforcers) who served in the American Civil War.

Several sites report that even though Waterloo, N.Y. was officially declared the birthplace of Memorial Day by President Lyndon Johnson in May 1966, it is difficult to prove conclusively the origins. They say it is more likely that Memorial Day had many separate beginnings in various places – that each location and every gathering of people to honor the war dead in the 1860s tapped into the general human need to pay tribute to all who came before us.

It is believed these observances contributed to the growing movement that culminated in General Logan giving his official proclamation in 1868.

The important thing regarding Memorial Day or Decoration Day is not the who, what, when and how of the establishment. The important thing is that we never forget the military personnel who lived and died for America, just as we reflect upon and pay homage to our ancestors.

After all, we are each created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27) – created to live honorably, to honor one another, and to honor the Creator.

— © 2013 by Carl Mays, speaker and author whose mentoring site,, is based on his book and program, “A Strategy For Winning.” E-mail to, call 436-7478 or visit