Learn about the history and traditions of Memorial Day

  • Memorial Day is a day to remember those who died while serving in the United States Armed Forces. Two major services are held at the Arlington National Cemetery Memorial Amphitheater each year, one on Memorial Day the other on Veterans Day. Judge Ivory Kimball was a Civil War veteran and an active member of the Grand Army of the Republic, a group of veterans who served in the Union Army during the Civil War. In 1903 he pushed for the construction of an amphitheater that would seat approximately 5,000. President Taft signed the legislation into law and ground broke in 1915. Kimball participated in the ground breaking and the corner stone laying ceremonies, but he did not live to see the amphitheater finished. He lays to rest in section 3 very near to the Memorial Amphitheater which was dedicated in 1920.

    The original amphitheater on the cemetery grounds, now called the James Tanner Amphitheater, was the site of the fifth Decoration Day celebration in 1873. It was much too small to accommodate the large crowds coming to honor fallen service members. The first Decoration Day was created by General John Logan, the Commander-in- Chief of the Grand Army of the Republic in 1868. He designated May 30th as a day to decorate graves of Civil War soldiers with flowers. The 30th of May was chosen because it was not a date of any significant battle or event. President Garfield made a speech at Arlington on that first Decoration Day.

    Gradually Decoration Day became known as Memorial Day. Memorial Day became an official federal holiday in 1971. It now falls on the last Monday in May. Today, members of the Old Guard decorate the graves at Arlington National Cemetery with small American flags on the Thursday before Memorial Day. In only four hours, Old Guard service members plant flags in front of approximately 280,000 headstones and the bottom of about 7,000 niche (for cremated remains) rows. This is a tradition that has been in place since 1948.

    The Memorial Day Observation Ceremony at Arlington includes a prelude from the United States Marine Corp band, a full honor wreath laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and an observance ceremony. Usually the President of the United States attends the event, which is free and opened to the public.

    Amanda Varnam
    Arlington National Cemetery
    Narrator, driver, trainer and dispatcher.