4 ways to celebrate your family history on Memorial Day

A day to fly the flag. A day off of school or work. A time to gather — virtually or in person as conditions permit. A day to visit and decorate the gravesites of loved ones and to remember them.  

In the United States, any of those could be ways to celebrate Memorial Day, which is on the last Monday in May. This year, that’s May 31.  

The first Memorial Day, on May 30, 1868, didn’t commemorate the date of a particular battle or anniversary. It was designated as a time for “strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country,” according to General Order 11 by Gen. John A. Logan in May 1868 and is shared on usmemorialday.org/history-of-memorial-day

Recognizing that those who died in the Civil War were buried across the nation, there wasn’t a particular ceremony set. The order indicated that people plan celebrations as they see fit.  

On the first Decoration Day, as it was initially called, more than 5,000 people decorated the graves of 20,000 soldiers in Arlington Cemetery and then-Gen. James A. Garfield spoke.  

Since then, it’s expanded to include more than the Civil War, the name has changed to Memorial Day, and it’s a federal holiday on the last Monday in May.  

As families gather to remember those who have died or visit in other ways on Memorial Day, or on a variety of similar remembrance holidays celebrated in countries around the world, there are opportunities to record family stories or delve into family history. Here are four ideas to incorporate into current traditions or start a new one:  

  • Finding a burial site and grave marker. Digital tools at FindAGrave and BillionGraves, and the FamilySearch indexes of both, can help locate a grave. Also, FamilySearch’s Relatives Headstone page can help locate a grave marker. With the indexes for FindAGrave and BillionGraves, these can be added to FamilySearch as a source, which helps other relatives find them, too.  
Flowers are next to a headstone at the Salt Lake City Cemetery on Sunday, May 23, 2010.
Flowers are next to a headstone at the Salt Lake City Cemetery on Sunday, May 23, 2010. Credit: Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
  • Taking a photo of a headstone. If physically visiting a cemetery, take photos of the headstone or grave marker and add it to the person’s profile on FamilySearch.org. Also, ask anyone in your group what they may know about the person. That can then be added as a memory on FamilySearch.org, whether as a digital recording or as a written story. It’s always a good idea to ask permission before sharing it. See familysearch.org/memories for more about adding a memory to FamilySearch.
  • Sharing memories. If you’re visiting with family, whether virtually or in person as local conditions allow, ask them about stories they may have heard about ancestors you have in common. With their permission, add it as a memory to FamilySearch. See familysearch.org/memories for more about adding a memory to FamilySearch. Also, FamilySearch’s list of “In-Home Activities” for individual, family and temple activities can help with family history ideas that go beyond Memorial Day. See familysearch.org/discovery/activities for information.
  • Finding military records. As Memorial Day started out as a way to remember and honor those who had served in the armed forces, FamilySearch has put together a page of resources on finding United States military records, including links to indexed collections, at familysearch.org/wiki/en/United_States_Military_Records