Memorial Day | Why and How Do We Celebrate?

Often Memorial Day brings to mind the end of the school year, beginning of summer, and opening of swimming pools. We often celebrate with picnics and other fun outdoor events with family and friends. All great things to do, just so we don’t forget the true meaning of the holiday. So what is the meaning of Memorial Day?

According to Wikipedia: “Memorial Day is an American holiday observed on the last Monday of May that honors men and women who died while serving in the U.S. military. Originally known as Decoration Day, it originated in the years following the Civil War and became an official federal holiday in 1971.”

As a young girl, I remember visiting cemeteries every Memorial Day to leave flowers to “decorate” graves of family members. It was a family tradition on this solemn day of remembrance to pay honor and respect even though the family members had not been service members.

Annual Decoration Days are more common in the American South where people travel and gather with relatives to put flowers on graves often including a religious service and picnic or potluck type meal. It is believed that this practice began before the American Civil War and thus may reflect the real origin of the “memorial day” idea.[5]

Cathy Fitz/Traverse City Photographer

Another memory I have from childhood is the wearing of poppies, but I never knew the story behind the Remembrance Poppy.

Here’s the info I found on Wikipedia: The remembrance poppy was inspired by the World War I poem “In Flanders Fields”.  The poppies were the first flowers to grow in the churned-up earth of soldiers’ graves in Flanders, a region of Europe that overlies a part of Belgium. The wearing of poppies in honor of America’s war dead is traditionally done on Memorial Day, not Veterans Day.
Memorial Day/Cathy Fitz Photography

During our recent visit to New Zealand and Australia they celebrated Anzac Day, a national day of remembrance very similar to our Memorial Day. Observed on the 25th of April each year, Anzac Day originated to honor members of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corp (ANZAC) who fought at Gallipoli during World War I.

It was a very solemn holiday with parades honoring veterans as well as the fallen, much like the services held in small town all across America. We stopped in the small town of Longford, Australia to observe the local service. It was very moving listening to the stories and watching the laying of flowers on the memorial with the crowd in total silence taking in the power of the moment with the sound of bagpipes playing in the background.

There was a particularly moving poem read during the services.

Not a Hero

The ANZAC Day march was over – the old Digger had done his best.
His body ached from marching – it was time to sit and rest.
He made his way to a park bench and sat with lowered head.
A young boy passing saw him – approached and politely said,
“Please sir do you mind if I ask you what the medals you wear are for?
Did you get them for being a hero, when fighting in a war?”

Startled, the old Digger moved over and beckoned the boy to sit.
Eagerly the lad accepted – he had not expected this!
“First of all I was not a hero,” said the old Digger in solemn tone,
“But I served with many heroes, the ones that never came home.
So when you talk of heroes, it’s important to understand,
The greatest of all heroes gave their lives defending this land.

“The medals are worn in their honour, as a symbol of respect.
All diggers wear them on ANZAC Day – it shows they don’t forget.”
The old digger then climbed to his feet and asked the boy to stand.
Carefully he removed the medals and placed them in his hand.
He told him he could keep them – to treasure throughout his life,
A legacy of a kind – left behind – paid for in sacrifice.

Overwhelmed the young boy was speechless – he couldn’t find words to say.
It was there the old Digger left him – going quietly on his way.
In the distance the young boy glimpsed him – saw him turn and wave goodbye.
Saddened he sat alone on the bench – tears welled in his eyes.
He never again saw him ever – but still remembers with pride,
When the old Digger told him of Heroes and a young boy sat and cried.

Clyde Hamilton

We had learned a little about Gallipoli and the origination of Anzac Day when visiting the Te Papa Museum in WellingtonGallipoli – The Scale of Our War – was a powerful and moving exhibit telling the story of New Zealand’s first campaign in World War I. Weta Workshop, designers for the Lord of the Rings trilogy, designed the giant, lifelike structures.

The landing at Gallipoli made a proud impact on Australians and New Zealanders at home. The date April 25th became the day they remembered the sacrifice of the 8,709 Australians and 2,721 New Zealanders who died in the war. The heroism of the soldiers in the failed Gallipoli campaign made their sacrifices iconic in New Zealand memory.

Travel Photography/Cathy Fitz

The visit brought to my mind a visit I made a few years ago to Arlington National Cemetery and The Tomb of the Unknowns. I still get chills remembering the powerful feeling of standing in silence watching the Tomb Guard.

There is a meticulous routine that the guard follows when watching over the graves called walking the mat. [19]

The Tomb Guard:

  1. Marches 21 steps south down the black mat laid across the Tomb.
  2. Turns and faces east, toward the Tomb, for 21 seconds.
  3. Turns and faces north, changes weapon to outside shoulder, and waits 21 seconds.
  4. Marches 21 steps down the mat.
  5. Turns and faces east for 21 seconds.
  6. Turns and faces south, changes weapon to outside shoulder, and waits 21 seconds.
  7. Repeats the routine until the soldier is relieved of duty at the Changing of the Guard.

After each turn, the Guard executes a sharp “shoulder-arms” movement to place the weapon on the shoulder closest to the visitors to signify that the Guard stands between the Tomb and any possible threat.

Out of respect for the interred, the sentinels command silence at the tombs.

Travel PhotographyCathy Fitz

The mat is usually replaced twice per year: before Memorial Day and before Veterans Day. This is required because of the wear on the rubber mat by the special shoes worn by Tomb Guards.


What is the difference between Memorial Day and Veterans Day?

Veterans Day on November 11 is actually the day to thank all the men and women who have served in the military during wars and peaceful times; Memorial Day is a day of remembering the men and women who died while serving. However, Memorial Day is still a good reminder to take a moment and thank those who have served and continue to serve.

I’ve gained a new perspective on the sacrifices made by those who serve since my son Cody joined the military. I am continually amazed by the  hard work, dedication, love for our country, and sacrifices made by Cody, his wife Brie, their little guy Ethan and the newest little Hartman arriving in December. So proud of you Captain Hartman and family!

Memorial Day

What ways can we honor those who have died in military service this Memorial Day?

  1. Attend A Parade. Many towns have parades on Memorial Day and some events even conclude with a memorial service. …
  2. Decorate with Flags. Break out the red, white and blue! …
  3. Buy A Poppy. …
  4. Participate in the National Moment of Remembrance. …
  5. Thank A Veteran or current service member.
Cathy Fitz/Traverse City Photographer

Many people visit cemeteries and memorials, particularly to honor those who have died in military service. Many volunteers place an American flag on each grave in national cemeteries.


With respect, honor and gratitude. Thank you to active military, veterans, and especially those who made the ultimate sacrifice. Freedom does have a price – lest we forget.

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Cathy Fitz Photography



Wedding & Lifestyle Photographer