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Memorial Day has a spiritual side

Faith has a place in national holiday

SALT LAKE CITY — From decoration to recreation, a gamut of activities surrounds Memorial Day in the United States.

But does the holiday have a spiritual side to it?

It certainly does — by presidential proclamation, no less.

But first, a little historical background. Dating back nearly a century and a half, the holiday carried the original title of "Decoration Day" and initially served to pay tribute to the fallen soldiers of the Civil War.

Decoration Day was first proclaimed on May 5, 1868, by Gen. John Logan, commander of the Grand Army of the Republic; it was celebrated later that month. With the May 30 date picked for the anticipated abundance of flowers across the country, inaugural ceremonies at Arlington National Cemetery included singing hymns, saying prayers and spreading flowers on the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers.

"We should guard their graves with sacred vigilance," wrote Logan in his original proclamation, adding, "Let no wanton foot tread rudely on such hallowed grounds. Let pleasant paths invite the coming and going of reverent visitors and fond mourners."

Decoration Day became an annual May 30 tradition — but not without some controversy. Several dozen cities and towns — in both the North and the South — claimed to be the holiday's birthplace, having started similar local tributes even before the end of the Civil War.

After World War I, Decoration Day changed from an emphasis on Civil War soldiers to paying tribute to the deceased soldiers of all wars.

First used in 1882, the term "Memorial Day" became more common after World War II. In the late 1960s, federal law officially changed the holiday's name from Decoration Day to Memorial Day.

In 1968, the U.S. Congress' Uniform Monday Holiday Act moved four holidays — Washington's Birthday, Memorial Day, Columbus Day and Veterans Day — to specified Mondays to create a three-day holiday weekend for each. Beginning in 1971, Memorial Day changed to its last-Monday-in-May format.

In the early throes of the Cold War, the U.S. government looked for ways to underscore the role of religion in national ceremonies, in contrast to Communism's suppression of religion.

In a joint resolution approved on May 11, 1950, Congress requested the president to issue a proclamation calling on the people of the United States to observe each Memorial Day as "a day of prayer for permanent peace."

Presidents since — including President Barack Obama — have obliged with such an annual proclamation in the days just before the late May holiday. The proclamation is traditionally titled "Prayer For Peace, Memorial Day" followed by the current calendar year.

Wrote Obama in his 2009 proclamation: "As we remember the selfless service of our fallen heroes, we pray for God's grace upon them. We also pray for all of our military personnel and veterans, their families, and all those who have lost loved ones in the defense of our freedom and safety."

In addition to the day-of-prayer designation, these presidential proclamations have also prescribed a specific a time period — traditionally at 11 a.m. at each locality — as a time for Americans to unite in prayer for peace.

In remarks he gave during Memorial Day ceremonies at Arlington in 2003, President George W. Bush paid honor to the men and women who wore the nation's uniform and were last seen on duty, be it in Iraq or Afghanistan, Korea or Vietnam or during World War II.

"Today we recall that liberty is always the achievement of courage," Bush said, adding "these men and women were strong and courageous and not dismayed. And we pray they have found their peace in the arms of God."