May is a month when I sometimes write about beekeeping. I want to confirm that I continue to keep bees, although I procrastinated and failed to order bees for a hive that didn’t survive the winter. However, I do have two strong hives and may be doing my first split this spring.

In May, I have also written about Mother’s Day. However, there is another very important day this month that deserves special attention, and that is Memorial Day.

I was reading the news recently and noted that The New York Times credited Alex Garland’s movie, “Civil War,” as No. 1 at the box office. The article stated that the “R-rated film benefited from a savvy release date — a time when Americans, sharply divided, are paying attention to the coming presidential election but are not completely worn out by it.” This led me to pontificate on how the term “Civil War” is bandied about these days and how truly awful the concept of Civil War is.

The Civil War ended in 1865 and claimed 620,000 American lives — more lives than any conflict in U.S. history; World War II was next with 405,399; followed by World War I with 116,516; the Vietnam War with 58,209; the Korean War with 36,516; the American Revolution with 25,000; and the War on Terror (2001-2024) with 7,078 American lives.

In fact, it was the very horror of the Civil War and the staggering loss of life that gave rise to what we know today as Memorial Day.

The exact origins of Memorial Day are not perfectly clear, but it was originally known as “Decoration Day” and believed to have informally begun when Mary Ann Williams of Columbus, Georgia, wrote a letter to her local newspaper, espousing that one day each year should be set aside to wreath the graves of our martyred dead from the Civil War. On May 5, 1868, three years after the war had ended, John Logan, head of the Union veterans’ organization known as the Grand Army of the Republic, proclaimed May 30 as “Decoration Day,” a day of remembrance. It is rumored that he picked this date because it did not signify the dates of any great battles, and it was also a time when flowers would be in bloom in both the North and the South.

The first official national Decoration Day ceremony was held at Arlington National Cemetery, where the Grand Army of the Republic placed flowers on the graves of both Union and Confederate soldiers. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant presided over the ceremony. Initially a day of remembrance for Civil War dead only, it was during World War I that Decoration Day was expanded to include all of America’s war dead. It was also during World War I that the red poppy became a symbol for Memorial Day.

“In Flanders Fields” by John McCrae

Canadian Lt. John McCrae, battle surgeon and poet, noted that the only thing growing in a decimated battlefield in Flanders, Belgium, were red poppies. He was so touched by this sight in May 1915 that he wrote the famous poem “In Flanders Fields,” and the red poppy has been a symbol of remembrance ever since.

Following the world wars, the term Memorial Day became more popular than Decoration Day, but it wasn’t until 1968, when Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, that the term Memorial Day became official.The date was shifted to the last Monday of May to create a three-day weekend for federal employees. This is still a point of contention for many groups, who still believe that keeping it separate and on May 30 would make the day more significant and keep it from getting lost in a three-day weekend full of barbecues and fun. An example of this occurred in 1923, when the Indiana state Legislature passed a bill that the Indianapolis 500 could not be held on Memorial Day, but this was so contentious that Gov. Warren McCray vetoed the bill. The race went on and continues to run over Memorial Day weekend, as does the Coca-Cola 600.

Memorial Day has a unique flag tradition. At sunrise, the American flag should be rapidly raised to full staff and then slowly lowered to half staff until noon, at which time the flag should be rapidly raised back to full staff. Another time-honored tradition is the president of the United States placing a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, as a way of honoring all those who have died fighting for our country. President Bill Clinton signed the National Moment of Remembrance Act in 2000 that asks Americans to pause for one minute of silence to pay tribute to all of America’s fallen heroes at 3 p.m. local time on Memorial Day.

May is also my birthday month, so it’s always a time of reflection on getting a year older and, every so often, a little wiser. My wife would say that this doesn’t happen every year, but that it does happen every so often. I would hope that we all take time to reflect on the true meaning of Memorial Day and that we do take a pause for at least one minute at 3 p.m. this May 27 to recognize and remember those who have given their lives as the ultimate sacrifice for this great nation. I would also hope that we take some time to reflect on the very events that sparked this holiday, and that we all find ways to be wiser, to learn from the past and not repeat history.