Memorial Day, a federal holiday since 1967, originated from the American Civil War to honor the Union and Confederate dead. During the early 20th century the occasion has been extended to recognize all Americans who have sacrificed their lives during military conflict. Below are five memorable Memorial Day speeches in American history.
1. Ronald Reagan's Remarks on Memorial Day at Arlington National Cemetery, 1982.
Reagan, known as "The Great Communicator," concluded his remarks with a challenge: "Earlier today, with the music that we have heard and that of our National Anthem – I can't claim to know the words of all the national anthems in the world, but I don't know of any other that ends with a question and a challenge as ours does: Does that flag still wave o'er the land of the free and the home of the brave? That is what we must all ask."
2. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., 1884. Holmes, a veteran of the Civil War, delivered an address titled "In Our Youth, Our Hearts Were Touched with Fire."
His speech was given in Keene, N.H. two decades before his appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court in honor of the fallen of America's most devastating conflict.
Holmes elaborated on the meaning of Memorial Day:
"So to the indifferent inquirer who asks why Memorial Day is still kept up we may answer, it celebrates and solemnly reaffirms from year to year a national act of enthusiasm and faith. It embodies in the most impressive form our belief that to act with enthusiasm and faith is the condition of acting greatly."
He summed up, showcasing his powerful oratory skills saying:
"But grief is not the end of all. I seem to hear the funeral march become a paean. I see beyond the forest the moving banners of a hidden column. Our dead brothers still live for us, and bid us think of life, not death – of life to which in their youth they lent the passion and joy of the spring. As I listen, the great chorus of life and joy begins again, and amid the awful orchestra of seen and unseen powers and destinies of good and evil our trumpets sound once more a note of daring, hope, and will."
3. Just a mere few months before he ascended to the presidency after the death of Warren G. Harding, then Vice President Calvin Coolidge delivered a Memorial Day speech titled, "The Destiny of America," in Northhampton, Massachusetts, in 1923.
Coolidge, who often played the role of civic educator, stressed the importance of American ideals and sacrifice in his remarks. He called war "not the worst of evils." He honored America's fallen and Memorial Day by saying we set the day apart "to do honor to all those, now gone, who made the cause of America their supreme choice." Coolidge quoted John 15:13: "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends."
4. In the very first Memorial Day Speech at Arlington National Cemetary, known then as "Decoration Day," a crowd of 5,000 gathered in 1868 to hear then Ohio Congressman and veteran James A. Garfield deliver remarks in honor of the Civil War dead.
Garfield noted the solemnity of the occasion by beginning, "I am oppressed with a sense of the impropriety of uttering words on this occasion," he added, "If silence is ever golden, it must be here beside the graves of fifteen thousand men, whose lives were more significant than speech, and whose death was a poem, the music of which can never be sung.
5. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. delivered another notable speech on Memorial Day titled "The Soldier's Faith," given at a meeting to the graduating class at Harvard University in Boston, Massachusetts on May 30, 1895.
Holmes gave tribute to the fallen simply saying, "The man who commands the attention of his fellows is the man of wealth."
Sources: Associated Press and Quora