PLANNING AHEAD: Memorial Day — its history and a time to remember [Column]

Memorial Day, the last Monday in May, is often remembered as the beginning of the summer season and thought of as a tribute to veterans. However, veterans are honored on the day named for them and Memorial Day actually is for those who gave their lives in U.S. military service. The history of the holiday goes back to its origin following the War Between the States, the Civil War.

Originally known as Decoration Day, the day acquired its significance in the late 1860’s when Americans in towns and cities throughout the country began to commemorate the service of deceased military by placing flowers and wreaths on their graves and offering prayers. Eventually, some towns and cities held parades and official community events.

Memorial Day, as it came to be known, was first intended to remember those who fought in the Civil War but eventually the intent was expanded to include American military personnel who died in all wars, including World War II, the Vietnam War, the Korean War and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. By at least one account, the earliest Decoration Day/Memorial Day ceremony may have been held in 1865 by freed African American slaves in Charleston, South Carolina when emancipated men and women met and reinterred and honored Union soldiers who had been held and died in a makeshift Confederate prison, a former race track in the city. Visit https://www.history.comnews/memorial-day-civil-war-slavery-charleston for more information.

The first national commemoration of Memorial Day was held in Arlington National Cemetery on May 30, 1868, where both Union and Confederate soldiers are buried.

In May 1868, General John A. Logan, the commander-in-chief of the Union veterans’ group known as the Grand Army of the Republic, issued a decree that May 30 should become a nationwide day of commemoration for the more than 620,000 soldiers killed in the recently ended Civil War. Logan described the day as “Decoration Day” when Americans should lay flowers and decorate the graves of the war dead. Visit for more information.

Congress in 1968 passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act,  effective in 1971. This named the last Monday in May as the date of observance replacing May 30. The Uniform Monday Act was intended to provide federal workers with three day weekends for holidays. The same law made Memorial Day a national holiday.

Benefits for Survivors. After the loss of a spouse who was on active duty and also, in some cases, of reservists, there are some benefits in addition to benefits provided to veterans’ survivors. One of these is known as the “Death Gratuity” and is a payment of $100,000 to eligible survivors of members of the Armed Forces who die while on active duty or while serving in certain reserve statuses. It is tax exempt.

There are several other benefits available to survivors of active duty members of the Armed Forces. These include life insurance proceeds, financial counseling, funeral and burial services for the service member, TRICARE health insurance for surviving spouses except in the event of remarriage and benefits under SBP, the Survivor Benefit Plan. The Survivor Benefit Plan is a monthly death benefit. For a survivor of a service member who died on active duty it pays a benefit equal to 55% of their retirement pay. Visit for more information. There may be SBP annuity payments for qualifying high school and college students under the plan.

There are several other benefits many of which are also available to widows/widowers of veteran retirees. Visit for more information.

One excellent source of information for veterans benefits is your county Office of Veterans Affairs. For additional information you can also check a pamphlet published by the Pennsylvania Department of Military and Veterans Affairs,, “Benefits and Services for Veterans and their Beneficiaries in Pennsylvania.”

There are too many to describe in detail here but one of particular interest to families of individuals who passed while in military service may be Military Awards for Valor. More information regarding this may be found at

Hope you had a thoughtful and pleasant Memorial Day and were able to remember those who served so we could enjoy the benefits of freedom today.

Janet Colliton, Esq. is a certified elder law attorney recognized by the American Bar Association and Pa. Supreme Court and limits her practice to elder law, retirement, special needs, estate planning and estate administration with offices at 790 East Market St., Suite 250, West Chester, 610-436-6674, [email protected] She is a member of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys and, with Jeffrey Jones, CSA, co-founder of Life Transition Services LLC, a service for families with long term care needs.

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