by ECWA Editorial Board | This U.S. federal holiday is celebrated on the last Monday of May to honor the men and women who have died while serving in the military. This year, it will be observed on Monday, May 27. Memorial Day is a day for remembering and honoring military personnel who died in the service of their country, particularly those who died in battle or as a result of wounds sustained in battle. In other words, the purpose of Memorial Day is to memorialize the veterans who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country.
Memorial Day is considered the unofficial start of the summer vacation season in the United States (though the season really begins with the Summer Solstice on June 21), while Labor Day marks its end on the first Monday of September. Many people visit cemeteries and memorials on Memorial Day, particularly to honor those who died in the military service. Many volunteers place an American flag on each grave in the national cemeteries.
The flag of the United States is the emblem of our identity as a sovereign nation, which the United States of America has been for more than 200 years. Therefore, members of the armed services and veterans are asked to stand at attention and salute when U.S. flag is passing in a parade or being hoisted or lowered; civilians should place their right hand over their heart.
Traditionally, on Memorial Day (U.S.), people visit cemeteries and memorials, and volunteers often place American flags on each grave site at national cemeteries. A national moment of remembrance takes place at 3:00 p.m. local time.
The custom of honoring ancestors by cleaning cemeteries and decorating graves is an ancient and worldwide tradition, but the specific origin of Memorial Day—or Decoration Day, as it was first known—is unclear.
In early rural America, this duty was usually performed in late summer and was an occasion for family reunions and picnics. After the Civil War, America’s need for a secular, patriotic ceremony to honor its military dead became prominent, as monuments to fallen soldiers were erected and dedicated, and ceremonies centering on the decoration of soldiers’ graves were held in towns and cities throughout the nation.
After World War I, the day expanded to honor those who have died in all American wars.
A Lasting Legacy
No less than 25 places have been named in connection with the origin of Memorial Day, and states observed the holiday on different dates. In 1971, Memorial Day became a national holiday by an act of Congress; it is now celebrated annually on the last Monday in May.
Since it all started with the Civil War, you might want to brush up on your knowledge of this event by visiting the Library of Congress Civil War collection, which includes more than a thousand photographs from the time.
How to Properly Display the American Flag
As a symbol of the country and its people, the flag should be treated with respect and be honored when on display. In order to treat the flag with the dignity it deserves, the following display guidelines are recommended.
General Guidelines for Displaying the Flag
- When the flag is hung vertically on a wall, window, or door, the Union (blue section) should be to the observer’s left. When the flag is hung either horizontally or vertically against a wall, the Union should be to the observer’s left.
- In a procession, the American flag should be to the right of any other flag or, if in a line of other flags, in front of the center of that line.
- When displayed from a staff projecting from a building, the union should be at the peak of the staff.
- When the flag is displayed otherwise than by being flown from a staff, it should be displayed flat, whether indoors or out; or so suspended that its folds fall as freely as though the flag were staffed.
- When displayed over a street, the flag should be suspended vertically with the union to the north in an east and west street, or to the east in a north and south street.
- On a platform, the flag should be above and behind the speaker, with the union uppermost and to the observer’s left.
- When displayed from a staff in a church or auditorium, the flag should occupy the position of honor and be placed at the speaker’s right as he faces the audience.
- When the flag is used to cover a casket, the union should be at the head and over the left shoulder.
How Not to Display the American Flag
The flag and its likeness should be treated with respect. Its image should not be cheapened or tarnished by improper use.
- The flag should not be dipped to any person or thing, including government officials—even the President.
- The flag should never be displayed with the union (stars) down, unless as a signal of dire distress.
- The flag should never touch anything beneath it, such as the ground, the floor, water, or merchandise.
- The flag should never be carried flat or horizontally, but always aloft and free.
- The flag should never be fastened, displayed, used, or stored so that it might be easily torn, soiled, or damaged in any way.
- The flag should never be used as covering for a ceiling.
- The flag should never have anything placed on it.
- The flag should never be used for any advertising purpose, nor embroidered on cushions or handkerchiefs, printed on paper napkins or boxes, nor used as any portion of a costume.
How to Properly Dispose of an American Flag
- When the flag is in such condition that it is no longer a fitting emblem, it should be destroyed in a dignified and ceremonious fashion, preferably by burning.
- Most American Legion posts will conduct an annual ceremony, often on Flag Day (June 14) to retire old or worn flags; contact your local chapter if you are not able to dispose of the flag yourself. You could also ask your local Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts troops about retiring your flag.
The Best Times to Travel this Memorial Holiday
According to AAA, nearly 43 million Americans are expected to hit the road this Memorial Day weekend for their first vacation of season—about 1.5 million more travelers than last year. If you’re looking to get outdoors this weekend, AAA suggests the worst time to travel is late afternoons of both Thursday and Friday (4:45-6:00 PM). Commuters and vacationers will be getting a head start on the three-day holiday weekend.
In metropolitan areas such as New York, Boston, Atlanta, and the nation’s capital, expect congestion to be two to three times greater than usual at peak times during the weekend.
Overall, the best time to travel will be just after the morning commute or after the evening commute, when most people will either be at work or already settled at their destination. So, plan accordingly!
Blight, David W. “Lecture: To Appomattox and Beyond: The End of the War and a Search for Meanings, Overview”. Oyc.yale.edu. Retrieved May 31, 2014.
Professor Blight closes his lecture with a description of the first Memorial Day, celebrated by African Americans in Charleston, SC 1865.
“The forgotten history of Memorial Day – WTOP”. wtop.com. May 25, 2018.
Almanac.com. How to Properly Display the U.S. Flag. May 23, 2019
Daniel Bellware and Richard Gardiner, The Genesis of the Memorial Day Holiday in America (Columbus State University, 2014).
G. Allan Yeomans, “A Southern Segregationist Goes to Gettysburg,” Alabama Historical Quarterly (1972) 34#3 pp 194-205.