Returning Meaning to Memorial Day

Veterans call for a fixed date and less emphasis on weekend fun.

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An American flag at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

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Memorial Day is Monday. Some believe it shouldn't be. While millions prepare to go to the beach or take a family picnic or just spend a day at the mall, veterans groups and others fret that the meaning of Memorial Day is lost amid the hubbub of a long weekend and the unofficial marker of summer. "Memorial Day is to honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice," says Joe Davis, a spokesman for the Veterans of Foreign Wars. "Its meaning goes way beyond the three-day weekend." He and others fear that Memorial Day has become nothing but a vacation weekend. But it didn't use to be.

Memorial Day began in 1865 in the mind of Henry Welles, a druggist in tiny Waterloo, N.Y., who wanted to honor the memory of those who died in the Civil War. He found an ally in a friend and customer, Union Army Brig. Gen. John Murray. A year later, they led Waterloo in the first annual observance of a day honoring fallen soldiers. Flags were lowered to half-mast, and locals joined in a parade to three local cemeteries to pay their respects. Some argue that similar traditions had already seized grieving communities across the nation, especially in the war-torn South. Why the credit today goes to Waterloo is largely because of Maj. Gen. John Logan, a friend of Murray and the founder of an organization of Union veterans. In 1868, he designated May 30 as the day to honor dead comrades—largely by scattering flower petals at their grave sites—and ordered local communities to join in Waterloo's celebration. Known as Decoration Day, the idea reached even President Ulysses S. Grant, who presided over a ceremony that year at Arlington National Cemetery.

After World War I, Decoration Day came to include all fallen American soldiers. In 1954, Congress renamed the holiday Memorial Day and eventually dubbed Waterloo its official birthplace. Through the decades, the date of May 30 remained fixed. But that changed in 1971 when Congress declared Memorial Day an official holiday and, much to the delight of the beleaguered American worker, altered its observance to the last Monday in May.

Over the years, Memorial Day's new function as a holiday weekend has become a source of increasing concern for veterans and others. Creators of RestoreMemorialDay.com have launched a petition drive, which has picked up nearly 10,000 signatures, to return the day to May 30. Among the petitioners is a mother who lost her son in Ramadi, Iraq. "Should another mother have to endure the pain of losing a soldier in our fight for freedom, I want them remembered not for the parades and the picnics, but for the love and sacred remembrance they are so deserving of," she writes. "Is it too much to ask we remember one day for them?"

Sen. Daniel Inouye feels much the same way. In 1989, the World War II veteran introduced a bill to Congress that would return Memorial Day to its original date. The bill stalled in the Judiciary Committee. In 2003, the Veterans of Foreign Wars passed a resolution at its 104th National Convention in support of the traditional Memorial Day holiday. It would amend Congress's 1971 decree "to strike the words 'the last Monday in May' and insert the words 'May 30.' " The VFW still supports the idea, because, "right now, the great majority of Americans view Memorial Day as a three-day weekend," Davis says. Changing the date "recognizes the sacrifice of 1 million Americans who have died in uniform...to help free the world from tyranny." But after seven years of war in Iraq, the VFW's priorities are of a more pressing nature: such as improving healthcare for veterans and passing a new GI Bill.

Still, the fight remains. Inouye has continued to reintroduce his bill every new session. The senator believes "the true meaning of this day has been lost and that it should be a time to honor and reflect on the sacrifices made by the men and women who have worn the uniform of the United States," says his spokesman, Mike Yuen. But it seems the popularity of the three-day weekend is winning out. Inouye has never even had so much as a cosponsor for the legislation. "This is something the senator is committed to," Yuen says. "He may be a solitary soldier in this battle, but he's a committed soldier."

Corrected on : Corrected on 5/22/08: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported the year Sen. Daniel Inouye first submitted a bill to return Memorial Day to May 30th as 1999. Senator Inouye first submitted the bill in 1989.