Why You Shouldn't Wish People a 'Happy Memorial Day'

Veterans Day is for the living, Memorial Day is for those who have died

Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

If you’re not off work today, you might be perusing online sales in your half-staffed office. Or you might be planning on attending a BBQ later.

Whatever you’re doing, don’t wish people a “Happy Memorial Day.” Here’s why.

Memorial Day descends from the Southern tradition of “Decoration Day,” where families would travel to the cemeteries where their ancestors were interred to place flowers on their graves. Often, large groups of extended families would make the trip, religious ceremonies would take place and food would be served. Decoration Day used to reflect the cycles of farm life, taking place in late summer when farm work was lightest or in autumn after the seasonal harvest. (Some areas would also observe it on Sundays, to coincide with church services.)

Memorial Day as we know it was established on May 5, 1868, when Grand Army of the Republic (a Civil War veteran organization) General John A. Logan, the GAR’s first commander-in-chief, declared May 30 to be Memorial Day and called on the GAR’s membership to make it an annual occurrence. Some hold that the day was chosen because it wasn’t the anniversary of a specific battle, while in 2010, President Barack Obama’s Memorial Day speech makes reference to the date being chosen because it was when flowers were optimally in bloom for decorating graves.

Memorial Day as a national holiday did not pass into common usage until after World War II, and wasn’t even designated as the holiday’s official name until 1967. In 1968, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which moved Memorial Day from its fixed date (along with three other holidays) to the last Monday in May. The law went into action on the federal level in 1971, and within a few years, all 50 states adopted the change.

Memorial Day is not – as Veterans Day is – a blanket remembrance of those who have served in the nation’s armed forces. It is specifically designated to honor those who have died while serving the country, and because of its gradual erosion into a “start of summer” celebration, a number of organizations and individuals advocate for the return of the holiday to May 30, including both the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War.

Hawaii Senator Daniel Inouye, a World War II veteran, introduced a Congressional measure to return Memorial Day to May 30 in 1987, and continued to do so every year until his death in 2012. In 1999, he wrote, “Mr. President, in our effort to accommodate many Americans by making the last Monday in May, Memorial Day, we have lost sight of the significance of this day to our nation. Instead of using Memorial Day as a time to honor and reflect on the sacrifices made by Americans in combat, many Americans use the day as a celebration of the beginning of summer.”

Writing on the Listserve in 2013, U.S. Marine Tony Bundschuh elaborated on the idea. “There is a difference between Memorial Day and Veterans Day. Veterans Day is the one where we give thanks to all that have served, but Memorial Day is supposed to be a somber day set aside for remembrance of those that have died serving their country. It is not a happy day.”

Former SEAL Kevin Lacz, who served with American Sniper Chris Kyle in the platoon SEAL Team THREE Charlie, echoed those ideas this year on MyStatesman.com. “Memorial Day needs to be a solemn remembrance of the brave Americans who have laid down their lives for the freedom we cherish. Frankly, the mere act of putting on the uniform isn’t heroic. As Americans, we have begun to overuse the word ‘hero ‘ I stand by my claim that the real heroes are the men and women who don t come home. Memorial Day is for them.”

And lastly, in 2015, writing in the Washington Post, Marine Corps veteran Jennie Haskamp linked to the Congressional Research Services’ list of American War and Military Operations Casualties. There are over 1.3 million names on the list.”I hope you enjoy your weekend,” she wrote, “but I hope you pause to remember, too.”

One small way you can do that: In December 2000, a resolution for a National Moment of Remembrance was passed, which calls for all Americans “To voluntarily and informally observe in their own way a Moment of remembrance and respect” at 3 p.m. local time. Alternately, consider donating money to one of the many organization that supports families of combat-wounded or killed veterans or veterans themselves, like Hope for the Warriors, the Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society or Homes for Our Troops.

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