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Create a Meaningful Memorial Day

Remembering the fallen, as a family.

As a kid, the combination of decorating the house, throwing a barbecue, and having the day off from school can seem celebratory. To adults, Memorial Day is often treated like Labor Day or Presidents’ Day – a bank holiday and day without the regular commute to the office. Maybe even the unofficial start of summer . . . .

But to those who have served and lost friends and colleagues, or to families who have lost soldiers in service to our country, Memorial Day is a solemn time to remember the fallen. And it is our job as parents that, even if we do not currently fall into one of those categories, we make sure our children know the extent of sacrifices made in pursuit of our freedom and protection.

History is full of traditions made to honor those who have died in service to our nation. While some erect memorials and statues, or plant flowers and trees, we want to share some additional favorite family-friendly ways to present the weight of Memorial Day in the midst of a celebration of America.

Change Your Greeting; Prepare Your Home

So often people wish others a “Happy Memorial Day” when the occasion is meant to be solemn and reflective, instead of a celebration. This is a day to practice remembering more than just your water blaster aim (though we enjoy that too!) Try modeling the sentiment of the day by wishing others “a meaningful Memorial Day” in the week leading up to Memorial Day. If you notice a business or home hanging patriotic décor for the occasion, thank them for observing Memorial Day or note to your children “that house is honoring our fallen soldiers by flying America’s colors.” You may need to explain what “fallen soldier” means to them, and depending upon the age of your kid, you’ll know best how in depth to go.

Involve your kids in decorating your own home – and remind them why we do so: to say “thank you” to those who paid the ultimate sacrifice.

Hand Out Flowers at a Cemetery

Three years after the Civil War ended, on May 5, 1868, the head of an organization of Union veterans — the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) — established Decoration Day, the previous name for Memorial Day, as a time for the nation to decorate the graves of the war dead with flowers. Maj. Gen. John A. Logan declared that Decoration Day should be observed on May 30. Many may not know that date was chosen because flowers would be in bloom all over the country.

Gen. Logan’s order for his posts to decorate graves in 1868 “with the choicest flowers of springtime” urged: “We should guard their graves with sacred vigilance. . . .Let pleasant paths invite the coming and going of reverent visitors and fond mourners. Let no neglect, no ravages of time, testify to the present or to the coming generations that we have forgotten as a people the cost of a free and undivided republic.”

My local florist, Plants and Things Floral Design, made a lovely display at each of our local cemeteries to hand out flowers to honor our veterans and say “thank you” for their service and the sacrifice of their families. Next year, we’ll be gathering all our spring daffodils and tulips from the yard and joining them!

Plant Flags

The first large observance of Memorial Day was held in 1868 at Arlington National Cemetery. Various Washington officials, including (future president) General and Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant, presided over the ceremonies. After speeches, children from the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Orphan Home and members of the GAR made their way through the cemetery, strewing flowers on both Union and Confederate graves, reciting prayers and singing hymns.

Today, organizations such as Flags for Fallen Vets keep the tradition of visiting graves alive by organizing flag plantings in veterans’ cemeteries across the U.S. Some of our Primerrily contributors have made this an annual tradition with their children. After registering online, you go to the cemetery for a briefing: you place the flag one one foot from the headstone, then you stand, put your hand over your heart, and say the soldier’s name i.e., “John Smith, thank you for your service.” Saying their names one by one, we are reminded that these are individual lives lost in defense of our country.

While flags are provided at organized events, you could also organize your own and order "Made in USA" American flags that are the right size for you.

Pro tip: Bring a ruler (for measuring the one foot spacing--a great measuring lesson for kids), mallet, and screwdriver (to hammer a hole for the flag) – to help you in your flag planting!

Visit a War Memorial

Most towns have at least one war memorial to consecrate the struggles that protected our nation’s interests and preserved our way of life. Do some research, pack the kids in the car (perhaps with some extra flags or flowers), and go for a visit.

Ask your kids:

  • What does the design of the memorial say about the conflict?

  • If there are faces in the memorial, ask how are the soldiers feeling? What do you think they would say if they could talk?

  • Do you think this battle ended in victory or defeat?

  • Do you recognize any of the names on this memorial? (Pro tip: sometimes having a friend or family member by the same first name helps make the connection less abstract)

Observe the National Moment of Remembrance

To ensure the sacrifices of America’s fallen heroes are never forgotten, in December 2000, the U.S. Congress passed and the President signed into law “The National Moment of Remembrance Act,” creating the White House Commission on the National Moment of Remembrance. The Commission’s charter is to “encourage the people of the United States to give something back to their country, which provides them so much freedom and opportunity” by encouraging and coordinating commemorations in the United States of Memorial Day and the National Moment of Remembrance.

The National Moment of Remembrance encourages all Americans to pause wherever they are at 3 p.m. local time on Memorial Day for a minute of silence to remember and honor those who have died in service to the nation. The founder of Moment of Remembrance, Carmella LaSpada, states: “It’s a way we can all help put the memorial back in Memorial Day.”

Set your alarm for 3 p.m. on Memorial Day and gather your kids around for a prayer, a moment of silence, or a minute of watching the flag with our hands on our hearts. Teach them the value of observing just one minute to honor many lifetimes cut short so ours could be that much fuller.

Carry the Load

Carry The Load started in 2011 as a grassroots effort by two Veteran U.S. Navy SEALs who thought the nation had forgotten the meaning of Memorial Day. Now, Carry The Load has turned into a worldwide movement to honor our nation’s heroes and help conserve the true spirit of Memorial Day.

Carry The Load inspires people to actively participate in its Memorial May events to restore the true meaning of Memorial Day. Upon registering, you can participate by hosting a Carry It Anywhere experience, organizing a youth Carry The Flag activity, walking in the National Relay, attending a City Rally, fundraising for our nation’s heroes, and taking part virtually throughout the 32-day event. Kids are welcome to attend most events.

Register for an event near you through this link.

Learn a Patriotic Song

While adult Memorial Day ceremonies may be marked by the sound of bugles or “Taps”, we’ve hand-selected some songs that could be fun for kids to learn. This year, our family will be learning the second and third verses to “America the Beautiful” (there are 8 in total . . . so in four years we hope we’ll know the whole song!). But verse three rings particularly clear on Memorial Day:

O beautiful for heroes proved

In liberating strife.

Who more than self their country loved

And mercy more than life!

America! America!

May God thy gold refine

Till all success be nobleness

And every gain divine!

Other songs to learn on Memorial Day include:

  • “Proud to be an American” by Lee Greenwood

  • "My Country ’Tis of Thee" by Samuel Francis Smith

  • "Ballad of the Green Beret" by Barry Sadler and Robin Moore

  • Any of the Military Anthems (we especially love the Air Force’s “Wild blue Yonder!”)

  • “Battle Hymn of the Republic”

  • “Stars and Stripes Forever”

  • “We Shall Overcome”

This is one of our favorite CDs for learning patriotic music.

Missing Man Table

If you’ve been to a Chik-fil-a in May (Military Appreciation Month), you may have noticed one table is not like the others: it’s the Missing Man table, and a ceremonial setup you can recreate at home.

Each item on the Missing Man Table represents the emotions and feelings reserved for those who did not come home. The ceremony symbolizes that they are with us, here in spirit. All Americans should never forget the brave men and women who answered our nation’s call to serve and fought for our freedom with honor.

  • The symbolism of the Missing Man Table:

  • The table is round, to show our everlasting concern for our missing men.

  • The cloth is white, symbolizing the purity of their motives when answering the call to serve.

  • The single red rose; displayed in a vase, reminds us of the lives of these Americans and their loved ones and friends who keep the faith while seeking answers.

  • The red ribbon symbolizes our continued determination to account for our missing.

  • A slice of lemon reminds us of their bitter fate: captured and missing in a foreign land.

  • A pinch of salt symbolizes the tears of our missing and their families who long for answers after decades of uncertainty.

  • The lighted candle reflects our hope for their return, alive or dead.

  • The Bible represents the strength gained through faith to sustain us and those lost from our country, founded as one nation under God.

  • The glass is inverted, symbolizing their inability to share a toast.

  • The chair is empty, the seat that remains unclaimed at the table.

If you don’t have a table to spare, consider a missing man chair at your dining room table that is reserved for the men and women who didn’t make it home to their family dinner.


What other ways does your family observe Memorial Day?

Let us know in the comments!


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