Posted at 10:01 AM ET, 05/27/2011

Memorial Day’s history: ‘Kneel where our loves are sleeping’


The sheet music for L. Nella Sweet’s “Kneel Where Our Loves Are Sleeping,” which may have been the start of Memorial Day. (Duke University - A project of Duke University’s Digital Scriptorium )
Ah, Memorial Day.

That glorious weekend that starts with the office emptying out on a Friday. The signal that summer vacation has just begun. Three days for grilling out, eating popsicles, and going to the beach. Watching firework displays from some high perch.

And, most importantly, a day for remembering those who died serving our country.

This year, traveling to family in Idaho or friends on Long Island so that we can better remember the ones we have lost will be a drag, with the price of gas $1.06 higher than it was a year ago — at $3.91 a gallon nationwide. But most of us are going anyway.

“Decoration Day,” as it was originally called because Americans decorated the graves of those they remembered, has been happening longer than anyone alive can remember, with dozens of cities and towns laying claim to its beginnings.

But a 1867 hymn shows it may not have been a city or town that began Memorial Day at all. An L. Nella Sweet hymn “Kneel Where Our Loves Are Sleeping” carried the telling dedication: “To The Ladies of the South who are Decorating the Graves of the Confederate Dead.”

A Smithsonian Institution site on Memorial Day better explains the holiday’s origins this way:

It is more likely that it had many separate beginnings; each of those towns and every planned or spontaneous gathering of people to honor the war dead in the 1860's tapped into the general human need to honor our dead, each contributed honorably to the growing movement that culminated in General Logan giving his official proclamation in 1868.

On May 5, 1868, Gen. John Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, officially proclaimed the holiday, and on May 30 of that year, flowers were first placed on the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery.

In 1915, inspired by the poem "In Flanders Fields," professor and humanitarian Moina Michael replied with her own poem:

We cherish too, the Poppy red
That grows on fields where valor led,
It seems to signal to the skies
That blood of heroes never dies.

Out of that poem came the idea to wear red poppies on Memorial Day in honor of those who died.

But the practice of wearing poppies has mostly disappeared, along with much of the meaning of Memorial Day, which has been overtaken by shopping trips and events like the Indy 500.

To ensure that Americans don’t forget what Memorial Day is all about, President Clinton passed a resolution in 2000 that said:

Memorial Day represents one day of national awareness and reverence, honoring those Americans who died while defending our Nation and its values... I ask that all Americans come together to recognize how fortunate we are to live in freedom... Accordingly, I hereby direct all executive departments and agencies... to promote a ‘National Moment of Remembrance’' to occur at 3 p.m. (local time) on each Memorial Day.

Before 3 p.m. Monday, I’ll be shamelessly listening to the best of our patriotic songs, including this rendition of “America the Beautiful” by Elvis:

By  |  10:01 AM ET, 05/27/2011

 
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