US & World

Why are there so many flags at gravestones on Memorial Day?

Members of the US Army place American flags at graves at Arlington National Cemetery May 26, 2016 in Arlington, Virginia in preparation for Memorial Day.
Members of the US Army place American flags at graves at Arlington National Cemetery May 26, 2016 in Arlington, Virginia in preparation for Memorial Day.
BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images

If you drive past certain cemeteries in Southern California, you might notice row after row of small American flags fluttering amid the gravestones. Why all the flags and how do they get there?

Although local springtime tributes were already taking places in various cities around the United States, the "official" observance of Memorial Day began in 1868, three years after the Civil War ended, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. The remembrance was known as Decoration Day and it was all about adorning the graves of the war dead with flowers and small American flags.

By the end of the 19th century, Memorial Day ceremonies, including the decoration of Civil War veterans' graves, were typically being held on May 30 throughout the nation. 

After World War I, the day was expanded to honor anyone who had died in an American war.

In 1971, Congress declared Memorial Day a national holiday and moved it to the last Monday in May.

The flags you now see at national cemeteries, like those in Westwood and Riverside, stem from Maj. Gen. John A. Logan's original directive for Decoration Day: To decorate graves in 1868 "with the choicest flowers of springtime."

These days, volunteers will coordinate with veterans' organizations to plant flags in front of gravestones at National Cemeteries. 

On Saturday morning, approximately 1,000 people — Boy Scouts, veterans and all manner of volunteers  — showed up at Riverside National Cemetery. They canvassed the 900-acre cemetery, planting the Stars and Stripes in front of headstones for servicemen and women.

If you want to pay your respects, the national cemeteries in both Riverside and West L.A. will hold memorial observances, on Monday. 

Los Angeles National Cemetery
950 S. Sepulveda Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90049
(310) 268-4675
Ceremony: May 30 at 10:30 a.m.

Riverside National Cemetery
22495 Van Buren Blvd.
Riverside, CA 92518
(951) 653-8417
Ceremony: May 30 at 11:00 a.m.

National cemeteries in Bakersfield and San Diego — as well as throughout the rest of California — will also be holding memorial observances.