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Visitors to the Santa Monica Beach on Sunday afternoon stop and look at the Arlington West Memorial, which honors soldiers who have lost thier lives in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The memorial is set up each Sunday from sunrise to sunset by volunteers with Veterans for Peace. (photo by Brandon Wise)

Memorial Day is much more than a three-day weekend that marks the beginning of summer. To many people, especially the nation’s thousands of combat veterans, this day, which has a history stretching back all the way to the Civil War, is an important reminder of those who died in the service of their country.

Memorial Day was originally known as Decoration Day because it was a time set aside to honor the nation’s Civil War dead by decorating their graves. It was first widely observed on May 30, 1868, to commemorate the sacrifices of Civil War soldiers, by proclamation of General John A. Logan of the Grand Army of the Republic, an organization of former sailors and soldiers.

In 1966, the federal government, under the direction of President Lyndon Johnson, declared Waterloo, N.Y., the official birthplace of Memorial Day. They chose Waterloo—which had first celebrated the day on May 5, 1866—because the town had made Memorial Day an annual, community-wide event during which businesses closed and residents decorated the graves of soldiers with flowers and flags.