The Meaning of Memorial Day

By Jeff Bogle

May 06, 2024

Honoring and remembering America’s fallen service members: Memorial Day’s purpose, history, activities, and traditions

Every year in late May, my mother and my uncle used to place flowers or a wreath on the grave of their younger brother, James, who was killed when an Army airplane that he was in as a radio operator was shot down over the English Channel during World War II. As a young boy I didn’t really get what this was all about, but I could see the tears in their eyes and feel their sadness.

James was the only uncle I never knew, dying while just 21 years old and many years before I was born. He’s always in my thoughts each year on Memorial Day, regardless of what I’m doing or where I am.


Yes, it’s one of ten federal national holidays, a three-day weekend, a paid day off for many people. Extra time for boating, fishing, camping and other recreational pursuits, as happens on other holidays. But it’s a solemn day. First and foremost it’s a national holiday commemorating the ultimate sacrifice of United States military men and women. The death of these service members, and the sacrifice they made, helped keep our country free. So, Memorial Day is when we honor and remember the lives lost by American service members in service to their country. More than 1.3 million of them have died in wars, nearly half in the Civil War.


Honoring fallen service members first occurred on May 30, 1868 at an Arlington National Cemetery service. The graves of more than 20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers who died in the Civil War were decorated then, and thereafter the laying of wreaths and flowers and flags on the graves of fallen service members led to such commemoration being called Decoration Day.

Decoration Day became more and more widely observed in states and at national cemeteries, with some states officially designating the day as a state holiday by the late 1800s. It became more formally known as Memorial Day after World War II, and was established as a federal holiday in 1971 when Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act decreeing that Memorial Day be commemorated annually on the last Monday of May.


May 27 is the day that Memorial Day will be commemorated in 2024.


Everyone should celebrate it, for obvious reasons. Public gatherings and sometimes parades are fairly common on Memorial Day and veterans groups and active-duty service members are especially involved in commemoration ceremonies and the decoration of gravesites. Memorial Day activities for veterans are common, and a small American flag is placed on each grave (whether a fallen service member or not) at Arlington National Cemetery. Either the President or Vice President also decorates the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier with a wreath.


The National Moment of Remembrance was created by an act of Congress in 2000. It encourages all Americans to pause - wherever they are - at 3 P.M. on Memorial Day for a minute of silence to “remember and honor those who have died in service to the nation.”


Sure, although ramps and public waters can be crowded on this day, as on any weekend or holiday, if the weather is favorable. As with other holidays, it can be a good time to take an extended fishing, camping, or boating trip, most of which are planned well in advance. Memorial Day fishing for veterans is no different than at any other time, although they and active-duty service members may get free or reduced passes/fees at some venues.


• The American flag is flown at half-staff from sunrise until noon that day.

• New York was the first state to declare it an official holiday, doing so in 1873.

• Those who died in all of America’s wars began being honored after World War I, and the holiday slowly became more widely established nationally.

• Memorial Day weekend is unofficially the beginning of “summer,” especially for schoolchildren, as many school systems have finished class by the end of May.

• This weekend or day is often the first time that many people get their boat in the water, having just prepped it for the start of recreational boating and fishing. This is most likely to be the case in northern states.

• As with other holidays, extended fishing, camping, and boating trips are likely to occur over this weekend.

Jeff Bogle
Jeff Bogle
Jeff is a dad of teen daughters, avid traveler, photographer, and freelance writer. He’s penned stories on family travel, outdoor recreation, the environment, parenting, and more for Fodor’s, Reader’s Digest, Parents Magazine, Good Housekeeping, PBS, and Esquire, among other publications. Find him on his blog, and on Instagram @OWTK. Jeff is also the publisher of the quarterly literary zine, Stanchion