Little-known History of Decoration Day

Our modern Memorial Day holiday was established in the 1970s, but its long history  began when Emilie Loring was a toddler.

Boston’s first “Decoration Day” was on May 30, 1868. “Every soldier’s monument in New England on that day should be crowned with floral emblems, for the living can pay no more beautiful tribute to the fallen brave.” By evening, graves were fragrant with colorful flowers, wreaths, and bouquets.

Job Beadleston, d 1862
James left his wife, 2-yr-old son, and 4-month-old daughter.

Five years later, “the keenness of private grief” had lessened, so that grieving families could “enjoy a mournful but deep satisfaction” in the day’s observances.

“Decoration Day” or “Memorial Day”

Already, the names “Decoration Day” and “Memorial Day” were used interchangeably. “Decoration Day” fit the practice of strewing flowers on Civil War soldiers’ graves, and “Memorial Day” suited the intention.

It is good to freshen in our hearts the sense of transactions which, though they are recent and we once thought we should never forget them, are, nonetheless, in danger of being effaced by the rush of new cares and distractions.

Boston Journal, 1873

Observances included parades, addresses and orations, singing, prayers, and poems. Schools were closed for Memorial Day in 1873. President Ulysses S. Grant closed government offices in 1874.

Another new practice was to leave a basket of growing flowers or to plant them right into the ground, “thus giving the plants an opportunity to remain fragrant during the season.” In some parts of the country, early-blooming tulips coincided with the day, but by far, the most reliable were peonies.

When I first moved to Kansas, it took me a minute to recognize that when folks spoke of “cemetery flowers,” they meant peonies. Once established, peonies can last a hundred years, guaranteeing Memorial Day flowers long after the immediate family has passed.

The association of Decoration Day with the beginning of summer was common by 1886, when Emilie was twenty. George Baker gave one of the day’s orations, the family decorated its loved ones’ graves, and then they left for the Rose Standish House. The resort and its “Melville Garden” offered boating, tennis, bowling, sailing, and shooting.

Emilie married Victor Loring in 1891 and gained another perspective. None of Emilie’s immediate family had fought in the Civil War, but Victor’s brother, Selden Hollis Loring, was at New Orleans, Vicksburg, and Baton Rouge with the 30th Massachusetts Infantry. His service to the Grand Army of the Republic assured that those who fell in battle would not be forgotten, and after Selden died in 1892, it fell to Victor to keep his brother’s memory.

By the turn of the century, 1900, the connection between Memorial Day and the beginning of summer activities was firmly established.

Over time, the observance of Decoration Day was extended to the fallen of all US wars, from the Revolution through the Civil War, Mexican War, Spanish-American War, and “The Great War.”

Then came the flu pandemic and the Great Depression, when family loss came on a scale altogether new.

“With the passing years, the idea has outgrown its military origin and purpose and today nearly the entire country pauses for twenty-four hours to pay homage to those who have gone before us…”  (1934)

In gratitude and remembrance, the French had kept Memorial Day in France since World War I. Then came World War II.

1940 New War near US graves
“… the too well-remembered thunder of great guns in the distance.” (1940)

WASHINGTON, May 29 (AP)–Europe’s war is within gun-sound of American soil–those United States cemeteries in France and Flanders where rest 30,902 American war dead. Already, bombs have dropped near these silent American outposts… Solemn Memorial Day services in the American cemeteries this year will be punctuated by the long unfamiliar, but too well-remembered thunder of great guns in the distance.”  Boston Globe, 1940

America entered the war after Pearl Harbor. For Memorial Day, 1943, Emilie Loring’s friend and Boston columnist, Agnes Carr, penned a poem:

1943 Agnes Carr poem


Memorial Day flags
“The day of tribute which the present pays to the past.”

On Emilie Loring’s last Memorial Day in 1950, the Boston Traveler observed the important function that Decoration Day–Memorial Day–has served. “It is the day of tribute which the present pays to the past.”

Painted in Waterlogue
A day of gratitude, hope, and promise

On Memorial Day, the springtime season of hope and promise is in full flower. May everyone remember how much of that hope and promise has its seedbed in the family burial lot.  Boston Traveler, 1950


Painted in Waterlogue
“Each life does count tremendously, my dear. Never doubt that.” Rainbow at Dusk

Enjoy your Memorial Day weekend, and Happy Landings to you all!

3 thoughts on “Little-known History of Decoration Day

  1. Thank you for the reminder of what thIs Holiday weekend means to all of us. During this current virus quarantine I reread some favorite Emilie Loring books and felt such comfort, not only from the stories, but the memories of the many years ago when I first read each book.

    Liked by 1 person

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