For most kids, “Memorial Day” means “Fun Three-Day Weekend.” It comes in late May, after all, when days are long and green, a preview of summer vacation to come. Indeed, for lots of families, the holiday kicks off a glorious season of barbecues, swimming, and other outdoor fun.

But the true meaning of Memorial Day goes much deeper than this. It is a somber day of remembrance for the men and women who have died for our country, and now’s a great time to start talking about it with your kids.

How Memorial Day Began

The work of honoring dead soldiers goes back as far as our earliest civilizations. When ancient Athens was caught in its deadly Peloponnesian Wars, for example, Pericles encouraged citizens never to forget those who had died in battle.  Their noble courage, he said, was “graven not [just] in stone but in the hearts of men.”

Centuries later, as the United States was just coming through the Civil War, Americans found themselves grieving as deeply as any of their ancient ancestors. Having expected a short skirmish, our nation instead fought a four-year war that remains the single most deadly in American history. Historians estimate that 620,000 soldiers died in the Civil War, a number that surpasses U.S. losses in World War I (115,000 dead) and World War II (318,000) combined. These losses were all the more heartbreaking because it was not uncommon for families to have sons or cousins fighting on opposite sides.  And when they did fall on the battlefield, it could take weeks and months to locate the dead and bury them properly. And so, wrote General John A. Logan in 1868, by the end of the war, soldiers had been buried “in almost every city, village, and hamlet church-yard in the land.”  How would the nation grieve properly, and heal? A powerful custom arose among women and families in towns across the country: honoring the graves of the fallen. On April 25, 1866 in Columbus, Mississippi, for example, women visited a Confederate cemetery to place flowers on the graves of soldiers who had died in the Battle of Shiloh. While there, they noticed unkept graves of Northern soldiers—and the women decorated those graves as well, in respect. Similar commemorations happened across states, both North and South, with celebrations first known as “decoration days.” With his “Order Number 11,” issued in June of 1868, General John A. Logan made the first official national proclamation of a day “designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country.” Let “no ravages of time testify,” he wrote, “to the present or to the coming generations that we have forgotten as a people the cost of a free and undivided republic.”

National Memorial Day Observance In 1971, our National Holiday Act declared Memorial Day a federal holiday to be celebrated on the last Monday of May. This is an official day off work, but it is also a time of official ceremony. At Arlington Cemetery, for example, which began in 1864 and today holds more than 260,000 military graves, over a thousand 3rd US Infantry troops will place American flags on more than 260,000 graves, and will maintain a 24 hour honor patrol through the long weekend. 

Their work will be echoed across the country.  Since 1951, to name just one example, Boy Scouts in St. Louis, Missouri, have decorated military graves at the Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery; since 1998, more than 15,000 military graves at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania have been marked by candles, again thanks to the efforts of local boy and girl Scouts. 

Still, in recent years, organizations such as Veterans of Foreign Wars have become concerned that the central meaning of Memorial Day may still not be reaching all Americans. In a 2002 address, the organization complained that “changing the date merely to create three day weekends has undermined the very meaning of the day.” 

What You Can Do

Parents, you can make a difference!  Here are expert ideas for bringing home the true meaning of Memorial Day to your children:

  • Make it Personal.  For many kids, the whole idea of “memorials” can seem odd and abstract. Explain it concretely, and you will give your child a gift not only of understanding a national holiday, but of making its lessons real and personal. Memorials, says Judy Tatelbaum, MSW, author of The Courage to Grieve, “are about remembering people who we have loved who are no longer with us.”  After all, she says, no matter what our specific spiritual beliefs may be, “memories are ways that people live on for us after they’ve died.” So, have you lost a beloved friend, family member or even a pet? Now is a good time to tell loving stories, or even to visit the grave and leave a flower there.  “To make death and grief natural is important for children,” says Tatelbaum. “It gives us permission to be fully human.”  For children, such knowledge can also provide a powerful way to feel connected to our whole national heritage.
  • Honor the National Holiday.  Even if you do just one small thing to participate in this national holiday, you will help your child connect the personal with the political. Is your community organizing a parade? This is a great time to go.  Or if that’s too overwhelming for your child, consider observing our “National Moment of Remembrance” at 3 pm local time on Memorial Day. In the words of the Congressional Proclamation issued in 2000, Americans can “voluntarily and informally observe in their own way a Moment of Remembrance and respect, pausing from whatever they are doing for a moment of silence or listening to “Taps.”
  • Celebrate our Freedom!  Somber as it is, Memorial Day is also a celebration of life, a time when we mark and appreciate the heritage that our fallen soldiers left us.  Planning a family barbecue?  By all means, do it with joy.  Eat, drink, and rejoice with loved ones! 

No matter what, of course, remember the weight of this day. In the words of Thomas Sherlock, Arlington National Cemetery Historian, “the most important thing parents can tell their children is that we, as Americans, are able to enjoy the freedoms we do because there have been men and women willing to sacrifice their lives so that we can be free.  We should all stop and remember this on Memorial Day.”