Yes, it’s a day for BBQs and for many it’s the unofficial first day of summer (the Summer Solstice is still three weeks away), originally called Decoration Day, from the tradition of decorating graves with flowers, wreaths and flags, Memorial Day is a day for remembering Americans who have died in wars. It was first widely observed on May 30, 1868 to commemorate the sacrifices of Civil War soldiers.
During the first national commemoration, former Union General and Ohio Congressman James Garfield made a speech at Arlington National Cemetery, after which 5,000 participants helped to decorate the graves of the more than 20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers who were buried there.
This event was inspired by local observances of the day that had taken place in several towns throughout America in the three years after the Civil War. In 1873, New York was the first state to designate Memorial Day as a legal holiday. By the late 1800s, most communities observed Memorial Day, and several states declared it a legal holiday. After WW I, it became an occasion for honoring those who died in all of American wars.
In 1971, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act and established that Memorial Day was to be commemorated on the last Monday of May. Several southern states, however, officially commemorate an additional, separate day for honoring the Confederate war dead, sometimes referred to as a Confederate Memorial Day, conveniently forgetting that they were traitors.
Wars Ranked by US Casualties:
- WW II (1941–45): 291,557
- American Civil War (1861–65): 214,938
- WW I (1917–18): 53,402
- Vietnam War (1955–1975): 47,424
- Korean War (1950–53): 33,686
- American Revolutionary War (1775–1783): 8,000
- Iraq War (2003-2011): 3,836
- War of 1812 (1812–15): 2,260
- War in Afghanistan: (2001-?): 1,833
- Mexican–American War: (1846–48): 1,733
Memorial Day is commemorated at Arlington National Cemetery each year with a ceremony in which a small American flag is placed on each grave. Traditionally, the President or Vice President lays a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. About 5,000 people attend the ceremony. Then, everyone goes home for a backyard BBQ.
Joseph Heller (1923 –1999) was an American writer who produced novels, short stories, plays and screenplays. He is best-known for the novel Catch-22 (1961) a satire on war and bureaucracy, whose title has become a synonym for an absurd or contradictory choice. Considered one of the most significant novels of the 20th century, it is set during WWII, and follows the life of Captain John Yossarian, a U.S. Army Air Forces B-25 bombardier. Most of the events in the book occur while the fictional 256th Squadron is based on the island of Pianosa, in the Mediterranean Sea the experiences of Yossarian and the other airmen in the camp, who attempt to maintain their sanity while fulfilling their service requirements so that they may return home.
In 1970, it was made into a rather confusing film, directed by Mike Nichols with a screenplay by Buck Henry (also in the cast), who worked on the script for two years, converting Heller’s complex novel to the medium of film. The terrific cast includes Alan Arkin, Bob Balaban, Martin Balsam, Richard Benjamin, Art Garfunkel (his acting debut), Jack Gilford, Charles Grodin, Bob Newhart, Anthony Perkins, Paula Prentiss, Martin Sheen, Jon Voight, and Orson Welles.