Memorial Day


Memorial Day, the last Monday in May, has been observed in the Greater Philadelphia area since the 1860s. The springtime holiday is considered the United States’ first multiracial, multiethnic commemoration and the kickoff of the summertime season. However, Memorial Day’s meanings and origin stories have been debated since its creation, and the holiday’s roots have been both contested and deeply enmeshed with the remaking of American memory in the decades following the Civil War. Each spring, generations of Philadelphians have participated in Memorial Day traditions upholding the meanings of the holiday’s past and shaping the direction of celebrations to come.

A black and white engraving of men and young girls cleaning graves and placing flowers at Glenwood Cemetery
Dedication Day observances spread through Philadelphia in the late decades of the nineteenth century and centered on decorating the graves of fallen Civil War soldiers. This engraving shows orphaned children placing flags on the graves of their fathers as a crowd of somber men and women look on. (Library of Congress)

In the years during and immediately following the American Civil War (1861-65), grave decoration, the ritual of adorning burial sites with flowers or small tokens for the dead, led to Memorial Day’s original name, Decoration Day. In the former Confederacy, the Columbus (Georgia) Ladies’ Memorial Association is often credited with originating Memorial Day on April 26, 1866. Founding member Mary Ann Williams (1821-74) declared the purpose to “. . . keep alive the memory of the debt we owe [the Confederate dead].”  Similarly, in northern cities and towns local and state governments created cemeteries for Union dead and heeded the call from the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) and its commander-in-chief John Alexander Logan (1826-86) to designate May 30, 1868, “for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion.” The late May date was chosen so the flowers used to decorate graves would be in full bloom. Community participation in Decoration Days often included speeches, church services, musical performances, and parades to honor veterans.

In Bucks County, the city of Doylestown has claimed to host the oldest continuous parade, citing a start date of May 30, 1868. In Philadelphia, Laurel Hill Cemetery was the site of the first Decoration Day observance, also on May 30, 1868. The bucolic burial grounds became the final resting place of several Civil War veterans, including General George Meade (1815-72), who defeated Robert E. Lee (1807-70) and the Confederate army at the Battle of Gettysburg.

While Decoration Day observances in the North and South shared many practices in common, including grave decoration, the “Decoration Day” holiday’s connections to the GAR and the valorization of Union soldiers led many Southerners to alternately use “Memorial Day” or “Confederate Memorial Day” to commemorate their dead. Still, not all Southerners chose to memorialize the Confederacy. On May 1, 1865, a group primarily composed of recently emancipated African Americans honored 257 Union troops left behind at a Confederate mass grave site in Charleston, South Carolina. The group organized the remains and reburied the bodies, created headstones, and decorated the graves with flowers, as almost ten thousand people gathered to march and mourn the soldiers.

The Twentieth Century

A color poster advertising bicycle races. There are three rows of men visible. The top row shows silhouetted Union and Confederate soldiers with rifles shouldered. The center row shows men racing on bicycles. The bottom row represents the same soldiers as old men carrying canes instead of firearms. Text reads "Bearing's Decoration Day Races".
Memorial Day traces its roots to Decoration Day traditions, which honored the dead of the American Civil War. This poster from 1890 shows rows of Union and Confederate soldiers and veterans framing a Decoration Day bicycle race. (Library of Congress)

By the start of the twentieth century, Decoration Days had grown in popularity and gradually lost their association with the Civil War as the generations directly involved died and the rift between the Union and the former Confederacy significantly diminished. Americans subsequently moved on to mourn those who had died fighting overseas in World War I (1914-18). During this period, the poem “In Flanders Fields” by Canadian Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae (1872-1918) became a popular mourning text and red poppies, associated with the poem, became the flower of choice for decoration of graves or one’s own clothing. “Memorial Day” also supplanted “Decoration Day” as the more popular title for the holiday, as it encompassed a more general theme of remembrance.

In the years following both World War I and II, Philadelphians erected statues and sculptures to memorialize fallen soldiers, including the Smith Memorial Arch (1912) on the Avenue of the Republic in Fairmount Park, Civil War Soldiers and Sailors Memorial (1927) on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway between Twentieth and Twenty-First Streets, and the World War I Aero Memorial (1939) in Logan Square. Some sites, like the Tomb of the Unknown Revolutionary War Solider in Washington Square (1957) and the Vietnam Memorial (1987) hosted annual Memorial Day ceremonies that included the solemn laying of wreaths, singing of the national anthem, and a twenty-one-gun salute to honor the dead.

a color photograph of a monument depicting Black soldiers in uniforms looking towards a figure of Justice, who is depicted as a caucasian woman holding a wreath in each hand. An inscription on the stone base of the monument reads "Erected by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in honor of her colored soldiers."
Pennsylvania state legislator Samuel Beecher Hart succeeded in passing a bill to create a monument to Black war veterans in 1927. The All Wars Memorial to Colored Soldiers and Sailors was erected in 1935 and moved to a prominent position on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in 1994. (Wikimedia Commons)

In 1950, the United States Congress passed a joint resolution requesting that the president proclaim a “Prayer for Peace” on each Memorial Day. In 1967, Congress officially declared May 30, “Memorial Day,” a federal holiday. In 1968, the passage of the Uniform Monday Holiday Act moved Memorial Day to the fourth Monday in May, creating an annual three-day weekend for federal employees. This development notably delighted the travel industry and dismayed some veterans’ groups, who worried the long weekend would overshadow the holiday’s traditionally solemn purpose.

a black and white photograph of a woman standing in ankle-deep water on the beach. She wears a black bathing suit and a sash reading "Miss Mermaid." Above her head she holds a large wooden key that reads "Key to the Atlantic Ocean"
By the mid twentieth century, Memorial Day’s somber roots faded and it gained a new identity as the first official day of summer. This 1964 photo shows the winner of the Miss Mermaid contest symbolically unlocking the ocean at Atlantic City with a giant key and opening it to beachgoers on Memorial Day weekend. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)

Throughout the second half of the twentieth century across the Greater Philadelphia area, the somber act of grave decoration or tributes to fallen soldiers increasingly gave way to parties, cookouts, and leisure activities that signaled the official start of summer. In New Jersey, while many towns hosted Memorial Day parades, the holiday was most popular as the official opening of the beaches and boardwalks in towns along the shore. In 1964, the winner of the “Miss Mermaid” competition symbolically held the “key to the Atlantic Ocean” in Atlantic City, New Jersey, to signify the start of the summer. In Pennsylvania, Memorial Day Weekend marked the opening of pools at many state parks, as well as Philadelphia’s spray grounds. In Philadelphia, the long weekend also offered festivals, fireworks, and special programs at local museums for tourists and residents alike. In the Bridesburg neighborhood, the local VFW and American Legion chapters raised funds for their Memorial Day parade through a Memorial Day 5k and 1 mile Honor Race.

Twenty-First Century

By the twenty-first century, many Americans marked Memorial Day with recreation or shopping rather than paying homage to those who died while fighting in the armed services. However, local VFW, American Legion, and other veterans continued to host traditional Memorial Day ceremonies. At the Philadelphia National Cemetery in the West Oak Lane neighborhood, graves have been decorated with American flags. In Laurel Hill Cemetery, attendees annually have recreated the original GAR Decoration Day Service of 1868 with speeches, music, and grave decoration. In 2021 President Joseph Biden (b. 1942) visited New Castle, Delaware, and addressed those gathered in observance at War Memorial Plaza on Memorial Day Weekend.

a color photograph of a monument depicting Frank L. Rizzo. The statue is positioned on a set of stairs and the figure of Rizzo is sculpted to appear as if he is walking down the stairs and gesturing towards someone with his right hand. The base of the monument reads "Frank L. Rizzo, Mayor, 1972-1980." Behind the statue is the Municipal Services Building which features the crest of the State of Pennsylvania prominently on the front.
Protests erupted throughout Philadelphia on Memorial Day weekend 2020 after the death of George Floyd. Protesters defaced and attempted to remove the monument of controversial former Philadelphia Police Commissioner and Mayor Frank Rizzo amidst the protests. (Wikimedia Commons)

For some, the holiday had grown to encompass memorializing Americans who have died outside of war. Memorial Day 2020 fell on May 25, the same day George Floyd (1973-2020), an unarmed Black man, was killed in the custody of a white police officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Video footage of Floyd’s murder quickly circulated online and inspired protests in cities and towns across the country. Participants demanded an end to police brutality, racism, and white supremacy, often while repeating the names of those killed extrajudicially by police. In Philadelphia, protests lasted from May 30 to June 23 and resulted in the removal of a mural and memorial statue honoring Frank Rizzo (1920-91), a former police chief and mayor accused of perpetuating racism and bias in the city. The protests shed light on the ongoing debate over how and why we choose to memorialize the past.

By May 2021, after half a million Americans had died from Covid-19 caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus and vaccines became more widely available, Pennsylvania and New Jersey “reopened” for Memorial Day by lifting almost all Covid-19 gathering restrictions. Philadelphia, while keeping some restrictions in place, encouraged tourists to visit the city. In South Jersey, Absecon, Glassboro, Vineland, and Wildwood hosted parades and the Battleship New Jersey in Camden hosted a wreath ceremony on the Delaware River.

Despite optimistic Memorial Day reopening celebrations, rising pandemic death tolls prompted calls across the United States for a “Covid Memorial Day” at the beginning of March. Across the Delaware Valley, groups came together to remember lost community members in various ways throughout the year. The Delaware COVID-19 Garden Remembrance Memorial at the First Presbyterian Church of Dover opened to the public on Memorial Day weekend in 2021, and the “Rami’s Heart COVID 19 Memorial” was dedicated at Allaire Community Farm in New Jersey on September 17, 2021.

As Americans updated Memorial Day practices to encompass modern feelings of grief and loss, they continued to redefine the act of remembering and who or what is worthy of memorial. In the face of national tragedies, cities and towns created and recreated the traditions of the past to better reflect their present reality and hopes for the future.

Mikaela Maria is a public historian and administrative professional living in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Author information current at date of publication.)

Copyright 2023, Rutgers University.


Bearings Decoration Day Races, 1890

Library of Congress

Memorial Day traces its roots to Decoration Day traditions, which honored the dead of the American Civil War. Decoration Day traditions began shortly after the war. Mourners visited the graves of Civil War soldiers in late May to plant flowers in memorial. Within three years of the war’s conclusion, Philadelphians observed their first Decoration Day at Laurel Hill Cemetery. Over time, the association with the Civil War diminished and the holiday became associated with veterans of other wars and with recreation instead. By the turn of the twentieth century, the name Memorial Day surpassed Decoration Day in popularity to encompass a broader theme of remembrance rather than strictly the gravesite observances.

This poster from 1890 show the transitional period from Decoration Day as a time to honor the dead and Memorial Day as the herald of summer recreation. Created as an advertisement for a late spring bicycle race, it frames the cyclists with rows of Union and Confederate soldiers with shouldered rifles above and aging veterans holding canes and walking sticks below.

Decoration Day at Glenwood Cemetery

Library of Congress

Early Decoration Day observances centered on decorating the graves of fallen Civil War soldiers, often with flowers but sometimes with flags or other adornments. In the years immediately following the war, this task often fell on the widows or children of the men who died in the war, as depicted in this 1876 engraving of Philadelphia's Glenwood Cemetery. The caption beneath the engraving identifies the children placing flags on the grave as the orphans left behind when their fathers were killed.

Glenwood Cemetery opened in 1849 at Twenty-Seventh and Ridge Streets in North Philadelphia. Hundreds of Union and Confederate soldiers and veterans who died in Philadelphia hospitals were interred at Glenwood, making it an early place for Decoration Day observation in the city. In 1891, Glenwood was one of seven city cemeteries to disinter Civil War veterans and relocate them to the Philadelphia National Cemetery in Northwest Philadelphia. At the end of the nineteenth century, the cemetery became the resting place to over 150 veterans of the Spanish-American war. By 1923, the cemetery had reached capacity and fallen into disrepair, prompting a move from its central location in Philadelphia to the nearby suburb of Broomall, Delaware County. In 1927, the remaining veterans' graves were reinterred in the Philadelphia National Cemetery. The Philadelphia Housing Authority took the cemetery's location by imminent domain and became the site of the James Weldon Johnson public housing.

All Wars Memorial to Colored Soldiers and Sailors

Wikimedia Commons

Pennsylvania state legislator Samuel Beecher Hart succeeded in passing a bill to create a monument to Black war veterans in 1927. Hart's first attempt in 1925 coincided with the proposed requisitions for the Sesquicentennial Exposition which was to open the following year, but was defeated. A second attempt two years later saw $50,000 requisitioned for the creation of the new monument. Originally the city's Art Jury planned to erect the monument adjacent to the existing Civil War monument on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, then later in Fitler Square at Twenty-First and Pine Streets amidst complaints by residents and landlords in that neighborhood, who feared the erection of a "Colored" war memorial would lead to loss of tenancy and property value. Finally a location in West Fairmount Park was selected. The completed statue featured Black uniformed veterans looking up towards a figure of Justice, depicted as a caucasian woman. After many proposals, the statue was moved to its intended location on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in 1994, sixty years after its dedication.

Miss Mermaid unlocking the Atlantic Ocean

Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries

By the mid twentieth century, Memorial Day’s somber roots faded and the holiday gained a new identity as the first official day of summer. The holiday’s new status was bolstered by the Uniform Monday Holiday Act of 1968, which moved observances to the fourth Monday of May and granted federal employees a three-day weekend amidst outcry from veterans’ organizations. The new date encouraged a focus on travel and recreation with Philadelphians increasingly choosing to celebrate the long weekend with barbecues and beach visits.

This photo shows the winner of the 1964 Miss Mermaid contest symbolically unlocking the ocean at Atlantic City, NJ with a giant key, opening it to beachgoers on Memorial Day weekend. The long holiday weekend has become one of the busiest annual periods for the area’s seaside resorts.

Frank Rizzo Statue

Wikimedia Commons

Protests erupted throughout Philadelphia on Memorial Day weekend 2020 after the death of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, while in police custody. Protesters called for an end to police brutality and racism. During the three-week long protest, many called the legacy of controversial Philadelphia Police Commissioner and Mayor Frank Rizzo into question. Rizzo served as police commissioner from 1968 to 1971 and as mayor 1972 to 1980. During his tenure the Philadelphia Police Department faced allegations of racism and brutality, a legacy which critics allege continued into the twenty first century. Protesters began demanding that a monument to Rizzo, erected in 1998 in front of the Philadelphia Municipal Services Building on John F. Kennedy Boulevard in Center City. While activists initially called for the removal of the statue in 2016, the mayor’s office did not agree to pay for its removal until protestors attempted, unsuccessfully, to pull the statue down in June 2020 amidst these protests.

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Time Periods


Related Reading

Blight, David W. Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory. Cambridge, Mass.; London: Harvard University Press. 2002.

The Evolution of Memorial Day.” n.d. The National Endowment for the Humanities. 

Kalifa, Heather. “A look at the ceremonies and cemetery visits marking Memorial Day.” Philadelphia Inquirer. May 31, 2021.

Litwicki, Ellen. 2013. America’s Public Holidays 1865-1920. Smithsonian.

McAneny, D., 2021. “Dover church debuts memorial for lives lost to COVID-19 in Delaware.” 

Memorial Day in Philadelphia: 8 City Landmarks That Commemorate Fallen Heroes.” n.d. Billy Penn.

Neiburg, Jeff. “President Joe Biden to Attend Memorial Day Observance Sunday near New Castle.” Delaware News Journal. May 28, 2021.

The Origins of the First Memorial Day.” 2021. The Philadelphia Sunday Sun. May 28, 2021.

Perez, Walter. 2018. “Thousands Celebrate the 150th Year of the Doylestown Memorial Day Parade.” 6abc Philadelphia. May 29, 2018.

Purcell, Dylan. “On Memorial Day, gathering to honor many who sacrificed.” Philadelphia Inquirer. May 30, 2016.

Roman, Jackie. 2021. “First Permanent National Memorial for Covid-19 Victims Unveiled at N.J Farm.”, September 22, 2021.

South Jersey Memorial Day Celebrations.” New Jersey Leisure Guide. Accessed February 22, 2022.

Waxman, Olivia. 2018. “Lots of Places Claim to Be the Birthplace of Memorial Day. Here’s the Truth, according to an Expert.” n.d. Time.

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