It all started with the Civil War. More young men died on the battlefields of the Civil War than anyone could have imagined, so many that it inaugurated the creation of the United States' first national cemeteries. After the war, towns and cities across the country began venerating the dead with springtime ceremonies, prayers, and floral decorations of the graves of soldiers. Like most holidays and observances, the birth of what was then called Decoration Day was an organic affair and nobody can be sure where the movement began, but in 1966 the US Government weighed in, declaring Waterloo, NY the birthplace of Memorial Day. The claim is that Waterloo had a tradition of closing businesses and decorating the graves of the fallen with flowers and flags, but I catch a whiff of coastal hubris. Heaven forbid it should be some little town in the hinterlands...how lucky we are to have the stake driven in a nice, respectable, East Coast town. Anyway, I digress...
In 1868 General John A. Logan of Murphysboro, IL leader of a Union soldier's organization called for a national day of remembrance. He selected May 30th because it didn't coincide with the anniversary date of any specific battle, proclaiming "The 30th 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." The holiday would retain its name through World War I and II, though it slowly was morphing from a remembrance of those who fell during the Civil War and becoming a remembrance of American deaths in global conflicts. It would take decades and an act of congress before the name was officially changed.
In 1968 the federal government enacted a bill called the Uniform Monday Holiday Act which, as the name implies, moved some holidays to Mondays in order to create three-day weekends. The date change not only moving Decoration Day to the last Monday in May as well as changing the name to the now familiar Memorial Day.
The change wasn't universally popular, the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) and Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War (SUVCW) campaigned to return to the date of May 30 in spite of the arbitrary nature of that date. In a 2002 Memorial Day address VFW stated, "Changing the date merely to create a three-day weekend has undermined the very meaning of the day. No doubt, this has contributed a lot to the general public's nonchalant observance of Memorial Day." Still, we celebrate the day with flowers and visits to the cemetery to adore graves with flags or wreaths or, more likely, barbeque with the family. In the end that's what they fought for, isn't it? The freedom and safety to enjoy a warm spring day with the ones you love without fear?