Lots of us are on holiday today, and some of us will formally mark Memorial Day by paying a visit to a cemetery and paying tribute to a fallen servicemember, maybe with a wreath, or flowers, or simply some time and attention.
40 states have national cemeteries, and there are quite a few overseas, too.
There’s an American military cemetery in Luxembourg. It was General George S. Patton’s headquarters during the war – and he is one of the 5,073 American servicemembers buried there.
And that’s not counting the ones run by states or communities.
Officially, the community that started Memorial Day is Waterloo, New York. In May 1866, the community spent the entire day honoring those killed in the Civil War by placing wreaths and flowers at their graves, then holding a parade, giving speeches and flying flags at half staff.
A couple years later they moved the holiday to the end of May rather than the beginning, and set the model for how we have celebrated the holiday originally known as Decoration Day.
But Waterloo is definitely not the only place with a Memorial Day origin story.
As the New York Times reported in 2012, the central Pennsylvania community of Boalsburg had been decorating graves in this way before the Civil War even ended.
Carbondale, Illinois, Petersburg, Virginia, Richmond, Virginia, Macon, Georgia, Columbus, Georgia and Columbus, Mississippi all join Waterloo with a claim on the holiday.
Some of the southern towns on the list had begun decorating Civil War graves. Some only decorated Confederate graves, others honored the fallen from the Union as well.
By some accounts, northern communities either decided to join in this observance as a way to bring about more national reconciliation, or to again try to outdo the southerners to remind the country which side won the war.
And there’s another side to the story entirely: in spring of 1865, as the Civil War came to an end, the free African-American community in Charleston, South Carolina had reinterring Union soldiers who died as prisoners of war and decorated their graves.
The next chapter in the history of the holiday is a little more clear: in 1868, US Major General John A. Logan declared that those under his command should decorate the graves of those killed in the war with flowers, telling them words that could have been used for any Memorial Day ceremony, in any year, at any cemetery in the country since “we should guard their graves with sacred vigilance. … Let pleasant paths invite the coming and going of reverent visitors and fond mourners. Let no neglect, no ravages of time, testify to the present or to the coming generations that we have forgotten as a people the cost of a free and undivided republic.”
How Waterloo, NY, became the birthplace of Memorial Day (New York Upstate)
Birthplace of Memorial Day? That Depends Where You’re From (New York Times)
Memorial Day History (VA.gov)
Photo of Village of Waterloo, NY sign by Jimmy Emerson, DVM via Flickr/Creative Commons