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National Cemeteries Pause on Memorial Day

gravestones decorated with American flags

American flags decorate the graves of the fallen at Arlington National Cemetery on Memorial Day. Soldiers from the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment at nearby Ft. Myer traditionally place the flag. (photo courtsey of Arlington National Cemetery)

by Jerome W. Mapp, VA Staff Writer

Memorial Day weekend for many people is a time spent frolicking at the beach or enjoying a traditional backyard barbecue with family and friends. For others, the weekend is a time for somber remembrance of the loved ones who died in the service of their nation.

Memorial Day is the federal holiday celebrated the last Monday of each May to honor the men and women who died while serving in the military. Unlike Veterans Day, which is held each November 11 to honor all Veterans, Memorial Day represents a time for the nation to pause, remember and honor the service of deceased Veterans and military members who died on active duty.

According to Alec Bennett, a historian with the Department of Veterans Affairs’ National Cemetery Administration (NCA), Memorial Day is a time when people visit cemeteries and memorials en masse.

“There is a great deal of coordination on Memorial Day,” Bennett said. “Many cemeteries will host ceremonies of remembrance, which are usually coordinated on the local level by officials at those cemeteries.”

Memorial Day traditions

Bennett said that the place where Memorial Day originated continues to be disputed. Waterloo, N.Y. and Charleston, S.C., are often mentioned among the places where the holiday began in 1866.The holiday was originally called Decoration Day, when the tradition of decorating the graves of Union and Confederate Veterans began. It still brings loved ones to the graves of the deceased, often with flowers.

More than 100,000 people are expected to attend activities at VA's national cemeteries; with color guards, readings, bands, and choir performances. Events will honor about one million men and women who died in the military during wartime; including about 655,000 battle deaths, according to NCA.

National cemetery staff and volunteers typically place American flags on each grave. At Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, for example, Soldiers from the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment based at Fort Myer, Va. — the famed “Old Guard” — traditionally decorate each grave with a small American flag.

Remembering all the fallen warriors

On Memorial Day at 3 p.m., local time around the nation, Americans will pause for the annual Moment of Remembrance to pause and reflect on the sacrifice of America's fallen warriors and the freedoms that unite Americans.

Black Hills National Cemetery in Sturgis, S.D., will hold twin ceremonies to honor cultural differences.

“The first will be an American Indian ceremony,” according to Terry Corkins, acting director of Black Hills National Cemetery. “The traditional ceremony will be held [two hours] later.”

The Department of Veterans Affairs maintains approximately three million gravesites at its 131 national cemeteries and has the potential to provide six million graves on more than 19,000 acres in 39 states (and Puerto Rico), as well as 33 soldier's lots and monument sites.

To learn more about the history of Memorial Day, visit VA's Memorial Day page.

For the dates and times of Memorial Day weekend programs at VA national cemeteries, visit www.cem.va.gov.