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The Origin of Memorial Day
May 28, 2012 - Jodi Burnsworth
The Memorial Day tradition originated during and soon after the Civil War when women, perhaps first in the South, began to gather to decorate the graves of fallen soldiers. At the war’s end, the practice was adopted by the Grand Army of the Republic, a Union veteran’s organization, which in 1868 established May 30 as Decoration Day. Memorial Day was first established as an official state holiday, May 30, by New York in 1873. Now Memorial Day is a holiday throughout the United States, observed on the last Monday in May since 1968.
Memorial Day is observed in West Virginia in the same way as in other parts of the country. West Virginia National Cemetery at Grafton observes the holiday on Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, while the old Grafton National Cemetery has a larger celebration on the following Monday. The holiday is observed in countless other public and private services statewide, and the long weekend signals the beginning of summer.
The observance of Memorial Day in West Virginia arises from other, unofficial roots as well. It was common here and in other parts of Appalachia to bury the dead without funeral services during the hard winter months when travel was difficult. Then in the spring, a memorial service was held for those people who had died during the winter, often in May when abundant flowers were available. The graveyard was cleaned and graves decorated, either on the day of the service or in preparation for it, and families gathered together to attend to these important duties.
This practice continued as an annual memorial service in church cemeteries and family graveyards even after transportation improved and it was no longer necessary to delay winter funerals. Often the service lasted much of the day, with ‘‘dinner on the ground’’ at noon. These services, primarily religious and sentimental rather than patriotic in nature and which may be celebrated on Memorial Day or at some other time of the congregation’s choosing, survive in some rural areas today.
From James K. Crissman’s Death and Dying in Central Appalachia. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994.
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Grand Army of the Republic Soldiers Decoration Day, Bruceton Mills, Preston County, W. Va., 1912. Photo courtesy of West Virginia Regional History Collection.