Memorial Day, originally known as Decoration Day was instituted after the Civil War to honor fallen Union soldiers and was first celebrated on May 30, 1868. The first Memorial Day order said in part: “The 30th day of May, 1868, is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, and hamlet church-yard in the land. In this observance no form of ceremony is prescribed, but posts and comrades will in their own way arrange such fitting services and testimonials of respect as circumstances may permit.”
In the early 20th century, the recognition was extended to fallen soldiers of World War I and other wars and conflicts. The following poems reflect the time in which they were written but also show that the emotions connected with losing Americans in war are universal.
Bring hither the flowers of earliest bloom,
Wave back with their fragrance all terror and gloom,
Make lovely the passage of Life to the tomb,
For the lost ones of earth have only gone home.
Though fathers, and wives, and sisters, may Weep
At the thought of Death’s slumber so silent and deep,
Yet remember, ye mourners, those soldiers will keep
Their sentinel guard around you while you sleep.
Not here, in the dust, doth the soldier heart lie,
Nor far, far away beyond the blue sky;
But sometimes so near, you can almost descry
A form by your side,—and the same loving eye.
Then come with fresh flowers, and scatter them here,
No time is more fitting,—no tribute so dear;
These offerings of Love their spirits will cheer,
As onward they march in the Heavenly sphere.
Though camp-life is ended, their work is not done,
They fought a good light, yet their race is not run,
But onward, and upward, towards God the great Sun,
Sounds a higher command to every one.
Soldiers, dear soldiers, your mem’ries shall live,
While we have a tear or a flower to give;
Honor be yours, oh, ye true-hearted braves.
When we see the old flag, and the homes of the slaves.
— Mary D. Merriam, Lawrence, Mass.
Commemoration Day — May, 1869.
A golden sky, a world of beauty,
Bright with blossoms and green with leaves,
We wandering ‘mid its marvelous mazes,
Binding the blossoms in beautiful sheaves.
Deftly twining them into garlands,
Weaving them into rare bouquets;
Frail blossoms, pure as the prayers of cherubs,
With an incense sweeter than sjngs of praise.
Over the hills, with the sun descending,
Slowly we go to the home of the dead;
The augel of peace, above us bending,
Parteth the willow wherever we tread.
Over the hills to the silent city,
God he knoweth our hearts are true;
Around the graves of our heroes kneeling,
Heaven above and their dust below.
Our fallen soldiers we kneel around them,
With reverent fingers we deck their tombs;
Drop by drop was their life-blood given,
To save unto us our precious homes.
Our country’s honor, our country’s banner,
Safe they bore through the blazing lines;
For them doth liberty sing high anthems,
And their graves are a grateful Nation’s shrines.
For them the heavens have heard our wailings,
For them the day beheld our tears;
Theirs be the shrines for votive garlands
Forevermore through the coming years.
In the temple of freedom, before its altar,
We kneel together side by side;
Yet well we know the temple had fallen,
Except for those grand lives crucified.
Then sacred this day to Columbia’s martyrs,
Make lovely the graves of the noble slain;
May freemen never their heritage barter,
Nor freedom’s altar with treason stain.
— Harriet Smead