An official website of the United States Government 
Here's how you know

Official websites use .gov

.gov website belongs to an official government organization in the United States.

Secure .gov websites use HTTPS

A lock ( lock ) or https:// means you’ve safely connected to the .gov website. Share sensitive information only on official, secure websites.

Arlington National Cemetery Honors Fallen With Flowers of Remembrance

The first historical precedent that provided inspiration for Flowers of Remembrance Day occurred in the aftermath of the Civil War. In 1864, the Army began to bury the war dead on the Arlington property, which it had seized in 1861 for defensive purposes.

Rows of headstones at Arlington National Cemetery.
Old Arlington
Rows of headstones at Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Va., circa 1865.
Photo By: Library of Congress
VIRIN: 240520-O-D0439-003

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."

A group of soldiers stand on the steps of a large house.
Staff Photo
Union Army General Irvin McDowell and his staff stand on the steps of Arlington House, Arlington, Va. in 1862.
Photo By: Library of Congress
VIRIN: 240520-O-D0439-001

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. 

A drawing shows a general on a horse holding his hat above his head.
Print depicting General John A. Logan, circa 1874.
A drawing shows a general on a horse holding his hat above his head.
General John A. Logan
Print depicting General John A. Logan, circa 1874.
Photo By: Library of Congress
VIRIN: 240520-O-D0439-004

While local observances continued, Decoration Day coalesced into a more official event in May, 1868, with the first  national observance of Decoration Day at Arlington National Cemetery, initiated by former  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, the nation's largest organization of Civil War veterans. Logan designated May 30, 1868, as a day of national remembrance for the memorialization of U.S. war dead and encouraged the "strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion." 

Arlington National Cemetery'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.  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 is a key site connected to the origins of Memorial Day.

A large round building is seen with people standing around it.
Memorial Amphitheater
Memorial Amphitheater at Arlington National Cemetery, circa 1920-1950 (likely closer to 1920).
Photo By: Library of Congress
VIRIN: 240520-O-D0439-006

To accommodate the increasing scope of Memorial Day and the swelling size of the crowds who came to Arlington, 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.

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 the 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 Arlington National Cemetery. 

A group of students gather daisies.
Daisy Decorations
A group at a Washington D.C. school gather daisies for Decoration Day in 1899.
Photo By: Library of Congress
VIRIN: 240520-O-D0439-005

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.

Flowers cover a casket.
Floral Tributes
Floral tributes almost obscure the casket of the World War I Unknown Soldier in the Capitol Rotunda. Likely taken on November 10, 1921.
Photo By: Library of Congress
VIRIN: 240520-O-D0439-007

Ahead of the funeral, the Unknown Soldier lay in state in the Capitol Rotunda. 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 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 Soldier. 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.

A person decorates a grave while a child holding an American flag watches.
Decorating Headstones
Visitors at Arlington National Cemetery decorate the graves of service members who died during World War I, May 30, 1929.
Photo By: Library of Congress
VIRIN: 240520-O-D0439-002

The importance of flowers at the events of 1921 inspired Arlington National Cemetery and its partners to include a special flower ceremony as part of the centennial commemoration of the Tomb's creation in November, 2021. The success and deep emotional resonance of this event led Arlington to develop the new tradition of Flowers of Remembrance Day, so that more people could have this opportunity in conjunction with Memorial Day weekend.

A Memorial Day poster  shows service members marching and the words 'honor the brave.'
Memorial Day POster
A 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.
Photo By: Library of Congress
VIRIN: 240520-O-D0439-009

The connections between the Tomb, Memorial Day and floral tributes grew even stronger as unknowns from subsequent wars were added to the Tomb. 

Two flag-draped caskets sit next to each other.   Flowers sit in front of them.
Funeral Service
The flag-draped caskets of the World War II Unknown and Korean War Unknown during the funeral service at the Memorial Amphitheater at Arlington National Cemetery, May 30, 1958.
Photo By: Arlington National Cemetery,
VIRIN: 240520-O-D0439-008

Today, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier 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.

{{slideNumber}}/{{numSlides}} - {{slideCaption}}
Photo By: {{photographer}}
VIRIN: {{virin}}
{{slideNumber}} of {{numSlides}}

{{slideNumber}}/{{numSlides}} {{slideTitle}} - {{slideCaption}}

{{slideInfo.slideNumber}}/{{numSlides}} {{slideInfo.slideTitle}} - {{slideInfo.slideCaption}}

Related Stories