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Flowers have always been at the center of Memorial Day

What we call Memorial Day originally was known as Decoration Day, and it may have begun in Boalsburg, Pa., near Penn State University.

Boalsburg calls itself the birthplace of Memorial Day, claiming that the custom of decorating soldiers’ graves began there in October 1864.

While the New York Times noted that several places make similar claims, what’s not in dispute is the central role that flowers have played throughout the history of Memorial Day.

In Boalsburg, three women – Emma Hunter, Sophie Keller and Elizabeth Myers – were said to have placed flowers and wreaths on the graves of men who died while serving the Union during the Civil War.

“The holiday grew out of the Civil War,” the Times wrote in 2023, “as Americans – Northern, Southern, Black and white – struggled to honor the staggering number of dead soldiers, at least 2 percent of the U.S. population at the time.”

The war ended in spring 1865. Soon after, in Charleston, S.C., at a service to commemorate the lives of Union captives buried in a mass grave, 3,000 schoolchildren led the way carrying roses. In 1866 in Columbus, Miss., women placed flowers on the graves of both Union and Confederate soldiers.

The first national commemoration was in 1868, when Gen. John Logan, the commander in chief of an organization of Union veterans, called for May 30 to be “designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country.”

National Poppy Day

Red poppies became associated with Memorial Day by way of World War I, specifically the poem “In Flanders Fields,” written by Canadian physician, writer and soldier John McCrae. He noticed poppies growing among the graves of soldiers buried in Belgium.

“In Flanders Fields the poppies blow,” he wrote, “Between the crosses row on row.”

The American Legion adopted the poppy as its official flower in 1920 and began distributing fabric poppies nationally in 1924. At the American Legion’s urging, Congress designated the Friday before Memorial Day as National Poppy Day.

After World War II, the holiday became better known as Memorial Day and officially in 1967. Memorial Day was observed on May 30 until 1971, when it was enshrined as the last Monday of May to ensure a three-day weekend.

While officially meant to honor the service and sacrifice of America’s fallen soldiers, Memorial Day has assumed broader meaning for some, who use the occasion to pay tribute to family and friends who have died.

One constant remains: flowers.

Flowers of Remembrance Day

Perhaps no greater example exists than Arlington National Cemetery, where the nonprofit Memorial Day Flowers Foundation has placed flowers on graves since 2011. That first year, the organization had enough money to buy flowers for 10,000 of some 300,000 headstones.

In 2023, the foundation announced that it could afford flowers for only half of the graves. But last-minute donations and help from the floral industry, according to Stars and Stripes, likely ensuring a flower for each grave.

“We are so grateful to the American public and the generosity of our floral importers, who are literally donating thousands of flowers by the pallet, to ensure our fallen military heroes are honored this year,” said Ramiro Penaherrera, executive director of the foundation.

Thousands of volunteers place the flowers on the Arlington graves on Flowers of Remembrance Day, the Sunday before Memorial Day.