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Memorial Day is a federal holiday in the United States for remembering the people who died while serving in the country's armed forces. The holiday, which is observed every year on the last Monday of May, originated as Decoration Day after the American Civil War in 1868, when the Grand Army of the Republic, an organization of Union veterans founded in Decatur, Illinois, established it as a time for the nation to decorate the graves of the Union war dead with flowers. By the 20th century, competing Union and Confederate holiday traditions, celebrated on different days, had merged, and Memorial Day eventually extended to honor all Americans who died while in the military service. It marks the start of the unofficial summer vacation season, while Labor Day marks its end.
Many people visit cemeteries and memorials, particularly to honor those who have died in military service. Many people place American flags on each grave in national cemeteries.
Annual Decoration Days for particular cemeteries are held on a Sunday in late spring or early summer in some rural areas of the American South, notably in the mountain areas. In cases involving a family graveyard where remote ancestors as well as those who were deceased more recently are buried, this may take on the character of an extended family reunion to which some people travel hundreds of miles. People gather on the designated day and put flowers on graves and renew contacts with relatives and others. There often is a religious service and a picnic-like ,,dinner on the grounds," the traditional term for a potluck meal at a church. It is believed that this practice began before the American Civil War and thus may reflect the real origin of the "memorial day" idea.
Memorial Day is not to be confused with Veterans Day; Memorial Day is a day of remembering the men and women who died while serving, while Veterans Day celebrates the service of all U.S. military veterans.
The practice of decorating soldiers' graves with flowers is an ancient custom. Soldiers' graves were decorated in the U.S. before and during the American Civil War. A claim was made in 1906 that the first Civil War soldier's grave ever decorated was in Warrenton, Virginia, on June 3, 1861. Though not for Union soldiers, there is authentic documentation that women in Savannah, Georgia, decorated Confederate soldiers' graves in 1862. In 1863, the cemetery dedication at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, was a ceremony of commemoration at the graves of dead soldiers. Local historians in Boalsburg, Pennsylvania, claim that ladies there decorated soldiers' graves on July 4, 1864. As a result, Boalsburg promotes itself as the birthplace of Memorial Day.
Following President Abraham Lincoln's assassination in April 1865, there were a variety of events of commemoration. The sheer number of soldiers of both sides who died in the Civil War (more than 600,000), meant that burial and memorialization took on new cultural significance. Under the leadership of women during the war, an increasingly formal practice of decorating graves had taken shape. In 1865, the federal government began creating national military cemeteries for the Union war dead.
A memorial-type observance after the Civil War was in Charleston, South Carolina, on May 1, 1865. David W. Blight claims that "African Americans invented Memorial Day in Charleston, South Carolina", based on the accounts of the Charleston Daily Courier. However, Blight stated that he "has no evidence" that this event in Charleston inspired the establishment of Memorial Day across the country. During the war, Union soldiers who were prisoners of war had been held at the Hampton Park Race Course in Charleston; at least 257 Union prisoners died there and were hastily buried in unmarked graves. Together with teachers and missionaries, black residents of Charleston organized a May Day ceremony in 1865, which was covered by the New York Tribune and other national papers. The freedmen cleaned up and landscaped the burial ground, building an enclosure and an arch labeled ,,Martyrs of the Race Course". Nearly 10,000 people, mostly freedmen, gathered on May 1 to commemorate the war dead. Involved were about 3,000 school children, newly enrolled in freedmen's schools, as well as mutual aid societies, Union troops, black ministers and white northern missionaries. Most brought flowers to lay on the burial field.
On May 26, 1966, President Johnson signed a presidential proclamation naming Waterloo, New York as the birthplace of Memorial Day. Earlier, the 89th Congress had adopted House Concurrent Resolution 587, which officially recognized that the patriotic tradition of observing Memorial Day began one hundred years prior in Waterloo, New York.
Many other towns also claim that they held the first Memorial Day, however, a recent study investigating dozens of origin theories concludes that nearly all of them are apocryphal legends.
Copying a practice that began in the Southern states, on May 5, 1868, in his capacity as commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, the veterans' organization for Union Civil War veterans, General John A. Logan issued a proclamation calling for ,,Decoration Day" to be observed annually and nationwide. It was observed for the first time that year on Saturday May 30; the date was chosen because it was not the anniversary of any particular battle. According to the White House, the May 30 date was chosen as the optimal date for flowers to be in bloom.
Memorial events were held in 183 cemeteries in 27 states in 1868, and 336 in 1869. The northern states quickly adopted the holiday. Michigan made "Decoration Day" an official state holiday in 1871 and by 1890, every northern state had followed suit. The ceremonies were sponsored by the Women's Relief Corps, the women's auxiliary of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), which had 100,000 members. By 1870, the remains of nearly 300,000 Union dead had been reinterred in 73 national cemeteries, located near major battlefields and thus mainly in the South. The most famous are Gettysburg National Cemetery in Pennsylvania and Arlington National Cemetery, near Washington, D.C.
Memorial Day speeches became an occasion for veterans, politicians, and ministers to commemorate the War and, at first, to rehash the "atrocities" of the enemy. They mixed religion and celebratory nationalism and provided a means for the people to make sense of their history in terms of sacrifice for a better nation. People of all religious beliefs joined together and the point was often made that the German and Irish soldiers had become true Americans in the ,,baptism of blood" on the battlefield.
Ironton, Ohio, lays claim to the nation's oldest continuously running Memorial Day parade. Its first parade was held May 5, 1868, and the town has held it every year since; however, the Memorial Day parade in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, predates Ironton's by one year.
An annual Memorial Day custom has been in practice in the South since 1866. The U.S. National Park Service, as well as numerous scholars, attribute its beginning to the ladies of Columbus, Georgia. Originally called ,,Memorial Day," the Southern commemoration appended the label "Confederate" to the title when northerners co-opted the holiday in 1868. The tradition of Memorial Day observance which had emerged earlier in the South was linked to the Lost Cause and served as the prototype for the national day of memory embraced by the nation in 1868. Historians acknowledge the Ladies Memorial Association played a key role in its development. Various dates ranging from April 25 to mid-June were adopted in different Southern states. Across the South, associations were founded, many by women, to establish and care for permanent cemeteries for the Confederate dead, organize commemorative ceremonies, and sponsor appropriate monuments as a permanent way of remembering the Confederate cause and sacrifice. The most important was the United Daughters of the Confederacy, which grew from 17,000 members in 1900 to nearly 100,000 women by World War I. They were "strikingly successful at raising money to build Confederate monuments, lobbying legislatures and Congress for the reburial of Confederate dead, and working to shape the content of history textbooks."
On April 25, 1866, women in Columbus, Mississippi laid flowers on the graves of both the Union and Confederate dead in the city's cemetery. The early Confederate Memorial Day celebrations were simple, somber occasions for veterans and their families to honor the dead and tend to local cemeteries. By 1890, there was a shift from the emphasis on honoring specific soldiers to a public commemoration of the lost Confederate cause. Changes in the ceremony's hymns and speeches reflect an evolution of the ritual into a symbol of cultural renewal and conservatism in the South. By 1913, Blight argues, the theme of American nationalism shared equal time with the Lost Cause.
Remembrance Day (sometimes known informally as Poppy Day) is a memorial day observed in Commonwealth of Nations member states since the end of the First World War to remember the members of their armed forces who have died in the line of duty. Following a tradition inaugurated by King George V in 1919, the day is also marked by war remembrances in many non-Commonwealth countries. Remembrance Day is observed on 11 November in most countries to recall the end of hostilities of World War I on that date in 1918. Hostilities formally ended "at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month", in accordance with the armistice signed by representatives of Germany and the Entente between 5:12 and 5:20 that morning. (,,At the 11th hour" refers to the passing of the 11th hour, or 11:00 am.) The First World War officially ended with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles on 28 June 1919.
The memorial evolved out of Armistice Day, which continues to be marked on the same date. The initial Armistice Day was observed at Buckingham Palace, commencing with King George V hosting a ,,Banquet in Honour of the President of the French Republic" during the evening hours of 10 November 1919. The first official Armistice Day was subsequently held on the grounds of Buckingham Palace the following morning.
The red remembrance poppy has become a familiar emblem of Remembrance Day due to the poem "In Flanders Fields" written by Canadian physician Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae. After reading the poem, Moina Michael, a professor at the University of Georgia, wrote the poem, ,,We Shall Remember," and swore to wear a red poppy on the anniversary. The custom spread to Europe and the countries of the British Empire and Commonwealth within three years. Madame Anne E. Guerin tirelessly promoted the practice in Europe and the British Empire. In the UK Major George Howson fostered the cause with the support of General Haig. Poppies were worn for the first time at the 1921 anniversary ceremony. At first real poppies were worn. These poppies bloomed across some of the worst battlefields of Flanders in World War I; their brilliant red colour became a symbol for the blood spilled in the war.
The common British, Canadian, South African, and ANZAC tradition includes a one- or two-minute silence at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month (11:00 am, 11 November), as that marks the time (in the United Kingdom) when the armistice became effective.
The Service of Remembrance in many Commonwealth countries generally includes the sounding of the ,,Last Post", followed by the period of silence, followed by the sounding of ,,Reveille" or sometimes just "The Rouse" (often confused for each other), and finished by a recitation of the "Ode of Remembrance". The ,,Flowers of the Forest", "O Valiant Hearts", "I Vow to Thee, My Country" and "Jerusalem" are often played during the service. Services also include wreaths laid to honour the fallen, a blessing, and national anthems.
The central ritual at cenotaphs throughout the Commonwealth is a stylised night vigil. The Last Post was the common bugle call at the close of the military day, and The Rouse was the first call of the morning. For military purposes, the traditional night vigil over the slain was not just to ensure they were indeed dead and not unconscious or in a coma, but also to guard them from being mutilated or despoiled by the enemy, or dragged off by scavengers. This makes the ritual more than just an act of remembrance but also a pledge to guard the honour of war dead. The act is enhanced by the use of dedicated cenotaphs (literally Greek for "empty tomb") and the laying of wreaths—the traditional means of signalling high honours in ancient Greece and Rome.
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