By Allison S. Finkelstein, Ph.D., ANC Senior Historian
On Saturday May 28, 2022, Arlington National Cemetery (ANC) will be inaugurating a new tradition: Flowers of Remembrance Day. During this ceremony, the public will be afforded the rare opportunity to walk on the plaza in front of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and place a flower there to memorialize our nation’s military dead. In conceptualizing the idea for this ceremony, ANC drew from several historical precedents and the events of the recent Tomb of the Unknown Soldier Centennial Commemoration to create a new, modern tradition for Memorial Day weekend. Since the cemetery’s early years, honoring the war dead with flowers has been a consistent ritual at ANC. This new iteration through Flowers of Remembrance Day forms yet another step in the evolution of this tradition. To help the public understand this ceremony’s intent and symbolism, this blog article explains the rich historical context surrounding this new event and situates it within the 158-year legacy of military commemoration at Arlington National Cemetery.
From Decoration Day to Memorial Day: The Origins of Floral Tributes at ANC
The first historical precedent that provided inspiration for Flowers of Remembrance Day occurred in the aftermath of the Civil War. In 1864, the U.S. Army began to bury the war dead on the Arlington property, which it had seized in 1861 for defensive purposes. At first, Arlington was no different than the other national cemeteries established out of necessity during the Civil War. Initially, burial in one of these national cemeteries was not considered an honor: it meant a family could not afford the high cost of transporting their loved one home for burial and went against the contemporary ideals of what constituted a “good death.”
However, all of that changed with the emergence of the Decoration Day commemoration now known as Memorial Day. Faced with the astonishingly high death toll of the Civil War—about 620,000 total deaths on both sides from combat and disease—Americans grasped for ways to channel their grief and honor the fallen. People began the ad-hoc, grassroots ritual of decorating the graves of their loved ones with flowers. The first such event of this type may have occurred as early as May 1, 1865, when a group of African Americans in Charleston, South Carolina, along with local supporters and U.S. troops, took part in a procession to the graves of U.S. prisoners of war located at a former racetrack that had been converted into a prison for U.S. soldiers by the Confederacy. The group decorated these graves with flowers, including roses.
While local observances continued, Decoration Day coalesced into a more official event in May 1868 with the first official, annual, national observance of Decoration Day at Arlington National Cemetery, initiated by former U.S. Army Maj. Gen. John A. Logan, a Civil War veteran. At the time, Logan served in Congress and as the commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), the nation’s largest organization of U.S. Civil War veterans. In GAR General Orders No. 11, he designated May 30, 1868, as a day of national remembrance for the memorialization of U.S. war dead. In this order, he encouraged the “strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion.” Logan’s order only directed the memorialization of the dead from the U.S. Army, those men, he wrote, whose lives had been “the reveille of freedom to a race in chains and their deaths the tattoo of rebellious tyranny in arms.” People in the South frequently held their own observances for the Confederate dead—often led by women—which took place on various dates, depending on the locality.
ANC’s first Decoration Day event in 1868 featured a procession from Arlington House to the Tomb of the Civil War Unknowns and further into the cemetery, where people decorated the graves with flowers. This event became an annual tradition and established Arlington as the site of the nation’s official, annual Decoration Day observance. The rising popularity of this holiday elevated ANC’s status compared to other national cemeteries and contributed to its long-term transformation into a distinctive site of memory. Attendance at the yearly Decoration Day event steadily increased, and in 1873, the War Department built an amphitheater near Arlington House to accommodate the crowds. Now called Tanner Amphitheater, this carefully restored historic structure remains at ANC as a key site connected to the origins of Memorial Day.
During the early, formative years of ANC, decorating the graves of the war dead with flowers functioned as a central remembrance ritual, linked to the larger Decoration Day practices taking place at cemeteries and Civil War grave sites across the nation. But as Decoration Day grew in importance and evolved into Memorial Day, its meaning did not remain confined to just the memory of the Civil War dead. It evolved to honor all American military dead. This became especially important after the Spanish-American War and the Philippine-American War, as Americans had new generations of fallen service members to memorialize. ANC became the final resting place for many of these wartime fatalities, expanding the geographic footprint of the cemetery and the flowers placed throughout it each Memorial Day.
To accommodate the increasing scope of Memorial Day and the swelling size of the crowds who came to ANC’s annual ceremony, the Army needed a bigger venue to host the annual ceremony. On March 4, 1913, Congress approved the construction of a larger and grander amphitheater. Dignitaries broke ground in 1915 and construction went forward despite delays, including some caused by the U.S. entrance into World War I in 1917.
An elaborate ceremony marked the dedication and public opening of Memorial Amphitheater on May 15, 1920. Constructed primarily of marble and designed by Thomas Hastings of the architectural firm Carrèe & Hastings, Memorial Amphitheater’s formal, neoclassical, beaux arts design made a striking contrast to the more humble original amphitheater. Inscribed with the names of battles and American military leaders from throughout the nation’s history up to the First World War, it formalized the transformation of Memorial Day into an observance connected to all American wars. The dedication of Memorial Amphitheater signified another turning point in the evolution of Memorial Day. What began as an informal ritual of placing flowers on graves had now morphed into a nationally significant ceremony hosted in a monumental, custom-built venue overlooking the nation’s capital.
The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the Transformation of Memorial Day
Floral tributes to the war dead took on further layers of significance due to World War I and a major change to Memorial Amphitheater just one year after its opening: the addition of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The Tomb would prove pivotal to re-shaping American military memorialization and deepening the symbolism of honoring the war dead with flowers, especially at ANC. The events of the Tomb’s first century provided much inspiration to ANC in formulating the upcoming Flowers of Remembrance Day event.
Inspired by Great and Britain and France, World War I veteran and Representative Hamilton Fish spearheaded the legislative effort to create an American tomb for one unidentified American service member killed during World War I. Much debate ensured about the appropriate location for the proposed tomb and the date of the funeral. While some members of the public urged Congress to locate the tomb at the U.S. Capitol or several other locations, Congress ultimately selected ANC’s new Memorial Amphitheater as the site for the Tomb. This choice indicated that, even in its first few months of existence, Memorial Amphitheater already was seen as a site of national importance, significant enough to hold this tomb. Locating the Tomb at Memorial Amphitheater, the epicenter of Memorial Day observances, positioned the nascent Tomb to play a large role in the future of Memorial Day and the floral tributes that constituted such an important part of that holiday.
In terms of the funeral date, Fish and others felt strongly that the funeral should take place on Memorial Day. He hoped that doing so would “develop a stronger interest among the veterans of the world war in Memorial Day and lead to the taking over of the ceremonies from the G.A.R.” In other words, Fish wanted to pass the torch of leading Memorial Day observances from Civil War veterans to the next generation of veterans. Likewise, as part of the ongoing effort at reconciliation even so many years after the Civil War, Fish believed that burying the Unknown Soldier on Memorial Day would “cement the North and South in one common Memorial Day” making it truly national in scope. However, the War Department opposed this date and preferred Armistice Day (November 11, 1921) for practical reasons. Mainly, some officers worried that a Memorial Day funeral date did not give the Army’s Quartermaster Corps sufficient time to ensure that the Unknown Soldier buried in the Tomb was truly forever unidentifiable. Nonetheless, the symbolic reasons behind Fish’s original intent for a Memorial Day funeral demonstrated the desire, early on, to connect the Tomb to Memorial Day.
The events surrounding the 1921 selection and burial of the World War I Unknown Soldier were replete with floral tributes that positioned flowers to become one of the most enduring and popular ways to honor the Unknown. In France, World War I veteran SGT Edward F. Younger selected the Unknown from among four identical caskets by placing a spray of deeply symbolic white roses upon the chosen casket. These roses stayed with the Unknown throughout his journey from France to the U.S., along with other floral tributes that poured in to honor him along the way.
Ahead of the funeral, the Unknown Soldier lay in state in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda from November 9-10, 1921. About 90,000 people visited and so many people left flowers and wreaths that photos show the casket practically covered by them. These flowers symbolized the outpouring of grief expressed over this Unknown Soldier, who stood in for the collective American war dead—unknown and known, missing and recovered. Visitors, whether ordinary citizens, international dignitaries, or American leaders, used flowers to demonstrate their deep affection for the Unknown Solder. Floral tributes continued at the funeral on November 11, 1921, and stand out as a hallmark of the event, a visual testament of the high honors paid to the Unknown Soldier.
The importance of flowers at the events of 1921 inspired ANC and its partners to include a special flower ceremony as part of the centennial commemoration of the Tomb’s creation in November 2021. These partners included: the Society of the Honor Guard, Tomb of the Unknown Soldier; the Memorial Day Flowers Foundation; the Military District of Washington; and the 3d U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard). On November 9 and 10, 2021, exactly one hundred years after the ceremonies at the Capitol Rotunda, the public was allowed to pay homage to that event and honor the Unknowns at the Tomb by walking across the Tomb plaza and laying a flower there. About 20,000 people participated in this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to honor the Unknowns on the exact anniversary of the 1921 ceremonies at the Capitol Rotunda. The success and deep emotional resonance of this event led ANC to develop the new tradition of Flowers of Remembrance Day, so that more people could have this opportunity, now in conjunction with Memorial Day weekend.
After the creation of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, it became the central site for the National Memorial Day Observance. Memorial Amphitheater had always been intended to serve this purpose, and the addition of the Tomb further solidified this site’s stature as the venue for this holiday. As part of the annual ceremony, the President or other high-ranking government officials would make a speech, and, if the President did not attend, he would send a wreath to be presented on his behalf. Photos of these ceremonies from the 1920s through 1950s show flowers and wreaths laid at the Tomb, continuing the Decoration Day tradition at this new site of remembrance.
The connections between the Tomb, Memorial Day, and floral tributes grew even stronger as unknowns from subsequent wars were added to the Tomb. On Memorial Day 1958 (May 30), a dual funeral interred one unidentified service member from World War II and one from the Korean War at the Tomb. This event revived many of the traditions established with the 1921 funeral. Memorial Day in 1984 (May 28) witnessed the last such burial at the Tomb with the interment of one unknown service member from the Vietnam War. In 1998, the Department of Defense disinterred and positively identified him as U.S. Air Force 1st Lieutenant Michael J. Blassie.
Holding all of these high-profile ceremonies on Memorial Day deepened the connections between the Tomb, Memorial Day, and its floral traditions. Whereas the World War I Unknown’s burial took place on Armistice Day (November 11), a date so meaningful to that conflict, as the Tomb became more representative of all American wars, Memorial Day became a key date that linked them together. Of course, November 11 remained an important anniversary at the Tomb, especially as Armistice Day morphed into Veterans Day and transitioned into an observance focused on honoring all American veterans. These two holidays—Memorial Day and Veterans Day—became annual bookends of remembrance at the Tomb and established a biannual focus on honoring the Unknowns and all they represented, through ceremonies, flowers, wreaths, and recognition.
Today, the Tomb of the Unknown Solider remains the central focus of the National Memorial Day Observance. More than 150 years after the Civil War, the traditions of Decoration Day live on each time a flower or wreath is placed at the Tomb on Memorial Day. This tradition has become infused with new elements of meaning that developed through the evolution of military memorialization practices, the growth of ANC, and the history of Tomb, connecting Americans to many parts of the past. Just like the Tomb now honors unknown and missing service members from all American conflicts, Memorial Day and its floral traditions also represent the entire span of American military history.
This year, a new ritual will be added to this legacy with the first annual Flowers of Remembrance Day ceremony. By referencing the history of floral tributes to the military dead, ANC hopes that this new event will connect visitors to the original meaning of Decoration Day and the significance it acquired during its transformation into the modern Memorial Day holiday. Memorial Day is not about retail sales, cook-outs, or the start of the summer season. It is a holiday dedicated to honoring and mourning the war dead. Forged from the collective grief of the American Civil War, it now provides our nation with an opportunity to pause from our normal affairs to pay tribute to those who lost their lives in defense of our nation. Through the new Flowers of Remembrance Day ceremony, ANC is offering the public the opportunity to viscerally connect with this ritual by stepping onto the sacred ground of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier—normally closed to the general public—and placing a flower there. Facing the Tomb with their flower, attendees will be able to reflect on the meaning of this holiday and participate in the creation of a new iteration of Decoration Day that maintains ANC’s longstanding role as a leader of military commemorations and brings this tradition into the 21st century.
How can I commemorate Memorial Day at home if I cannot come to ANC?
Even if you cannot attend the Flowers of Remembrance Day ceremony in-person, there are many ways you can commemorate Memorial Day at home and connect with its meaning.
Learn more here:
Tomb of the Unknown Soldier Centennial Commemoration: Access all of our resources from the Tomb Centennial at this webpage.
1. Visitors at Arlington National Cemetery decorate the graves of service members who died during World War I on May 30, 1929. Library of Congress.
2. General Irvin McDowell and his staff on the steps of Arlington House in 1862. Library of Congress.
3. Rows of headstones at Arlington National Cemetery, circa 1865. Library of Congress.
4. This 1866 print of A. R. Waud’s wood engraving “The Lost Found,” published in Harper’s Weekly, shows a woman mourning at a crooked and poorly marked headstone. The crumbling and toppled headstones nearby suggest how the Civil War radically disrupted American cultural norms around mourning and the “Good Death.” Library of Congress.
5. Print depicting General John A. Logan, circa 1874. Library of Congress.
6. A group at a Washington D.C. school with daisies gathered for Decoration Day in 1899. Library of Congress.
7. Memorial Amphitheater at Arlington National Cemetery, circa 1920-1950 (likely closer to 1920). Photo by Theodor Horydczak, Library of Congress.
8. This Memorial Day poster from May 30, 1917, soon after the U.S. entrance into World War I, includes a subtitle that links the holiday to previous American wars. The line of marching veterans visually illustrates the transition of this holiday from the Civil War (the two elderly veterans in the center) to the current conflict. Library of Congress.
9. A joint American and French honor guard stand at attention before the casket of the newly selected American World War I Unknown Soldier in Châlons-sur-Marne, France, October 24, 1921. Note the bouquet of white roses—used in the selection ceremony—atop the casket and the other flower tributes surrounding it. National Archives.
10. Floral tributes almost obscure the casket of the World War I Unknown Soldier in the Capitol Rotunda. Likely taken on November 10, 1921. Library of Congress.
11. During the funeral service for the World War I Unknown Soldier in Memorial Amphitheater, floral wreaths nearly cover the stage, November 11, 1921. Library of Congress.
12. President Herbert Hoover lays at wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Solider on Memorial Day, May 30, 1929. Library of Congress.
13. The flag-draped caskets of the World War II Unknown and Korean War Unknown during the funeral service at Memorial Amphitheater on May 30, 1958. ANC Historical Research Collection.
14. Gold Star mothers lay flowers at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on Memorial Day, May 30. 1927. Library of Congress.