Memorial Day is so much more than hot dogs and burgers on the grill. It’s even more than yet another time stores use to pitch the latest sales.
The true purpose of Memorial Day is a time to honor military service members who died in the line of duty.
The origins of Memorial Day go back to the Civil War, which ended in 1865. In the years that followed, several communities began honoring their war dead in small ceremonies. But it was Murphysboro, Ill., native Gen. John Logan, commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, who issued general orders establishing the annual, national observance.
The order stated that "the 30th day of May, 1868, is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village and hamlet churchyard in the land."
With that, the holiday became official.
Many baby boomers and their elders may recall when the day was referred to as Decoration Day, in keeping with Logan’s order. Over time, Americans have come to use the day to remember all veterans, whether they died in battle or not, and eventually all loved ones.
And though some do, it should not be confused with Veterans Day — Nov. 11 — which marks the cessation of hostilities in 1918 between the Allied nations and Germany, ending World War I.
On Monday, Memorial Day ceremonies are scheduled at national cemeteries across the country. At Jefferson Barracks, in south St. Louis County, several thousand are expected to attend at 10 a.m., and hear remarks from Joe Frank, national commander of the American Legion from 1996-1997. Alton National Cemetery will have a ceremony at 6:30 p.m.
But for many people, this last Monday in May is mainly a welcome day of rest.
For example, Teresa West of St. Louis is “hoping to just relax. I've been really busy this month.”
West is among several people who responded to a Public Insight Network query: What does Memorial Day mean to you?
Following are some of those comments, edited, for length or clarity.
“Other than my dad in the Army for a couple non-war years, there are no veterans in my little family, so we didn't do anything special — just put up a flag and had a relaxing, three-day weekend. In my later adult years we lived near D.C., and it hurt to see all the (grave markers) when we visited Arlington. Then I understood the significance of the holiday and began putting out flags and thinking of those who gave their lives in war. … I think everyone should read a combat memoir so they can more fully understand what our military men and women on the battlefield endure. So many civilians haven't a clue what really goes on, yet have opinions and make judgments.” — Linda Austin, Kirkwood
“I remember decorating the house with bunting and flags. [Memorial Day] is a bleak reminder of the terrible cost of human beings competing for resources and land. That's all war has ever been, though cloaked in religion, rights and revenge. It really all boils down to who gets the power to control things ... And we're still not doing a very good job of avoiding it. … I'd like more information about the veterans of more recent wars: Vietnam, Kuwait, Iraq, Afghanistan. What do those men and women believe their role was? Did they serve a positive purpose for our country?” — Stacey McMackin, Richmond Heights
“On Memorial Day ... my grandfather just took me with him while he visited with his sister. My Uncle John (his first born) served in the Army, but we never visited Jefferson Barracks, where he is laid to rest. We would get back home just in time for me to have fun with my cousins and have the music cranked up in the backyard. My grandmother and aunt will have been barbecuing and then it's time to eat. … Now that I'm older, I'm grateful for those who served and died for the country. It takes special, caring and selfless individuals to give themselves for people they may never meet, all for the good of the country. Grateful.” — Teresa West, St. Louis
“Our family used to gather at the "College Cemetery" at Iowa State, where my grandmother was buried ... and my grandfather was founding director of Iowa State Extension. We would put flowers on several graves ... and then watch the parade. My kid sister's birthday was May 30, and she was pretty old before we told her it was not all put on for her. … I usually think about the war dead on Nov. 11. Memorial Day is for all family members, including those who (like my father) served in the military.” — Robert Bliss, St. Louis
“I will be putting out my flag with a sign thanking my Dad (WWII B-26 radio operator), uncle (WWII paratrooper), and brother (Vietnam era) for their service. It's always more poignant for me because my uncle died in a German POW camp after the Russians invaded. In just a few short months, he would have been on his way home to his family. ... I feel sadness for all the young men who were trained to fight who never wanted to experience war and who were shocked by the horrible things they saw and had to do. Seeing names from the wars makes me think about families and friends who lost loved ones in war. ... I wish people would actually do something to remember those who have fought and died to keep us safe." — Nina Brewer, St. Louis
“My dad was a California Highway Patrol officer, killed in the line of duty in 1967. This is one of many occasions that prompt me to remember him, his service, his patriotism and his dreams. When my children were young, it was more important to me to commemorate holidays like this, to talk with them about why the holiday exists, and to enjoy the seasonality of the occasion as well as the meaning. Barbecues and water slides and end-of-school-year gatherings were part of it, but not the most important part. ... The courage of soldiers to submit to national fights and follow orders, as well as the strength of their families in supporting their service and surviving without them, humbles me, especially when the cause they are required to fight for is unpopular. "— Susie Snortum, Portland, Ore.
If you go:
Alton National Cemetery
600 Pearl St.
For information please contact: Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery (314) 845-8320
Ceremony: Monday, 6:30 p.m.
Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery
2900 Sheridan Road
Ceremony: Monday, 10:00 a.m.
Bus and tram transportation will be provided for Memorial Day from the Sheridan Road Metro Lot and the JB Medical Center, and will start 8:00 a.m. Due to very heavy traffic on Sheridan Road, visitors are strongly encouraged to use the Koch Road exit from I-255 and park in the Purple and Bronze parking lots near Building 53 at the JB VA Medical Center.
Quincy National Cemetery
36th and Maine streets
For information please contact: Rock Island National Cemetery (309) 782-2094
Help inform our coverage
This report includes submissions from our Public Insight Network. Learn more about the network and how you can become a source for St. Louis Public Radio here.