Memorial Day by the numbers: Facts about the solemn American holiday


Memorial Day is observed in the U.S. on Monday, May 29.

While some Americans will use the federal holiday as a time to celebrate and recharge, others view it as a day of mourning.

If you’re not certain why that is, here are 10 number-based facts about how Memorial Day came to be, current observance traditions and key statistics about America’s military.

1. When did the first Memorial Day take place?

America’s first Memorial Day observance was on May 5, 1868, which was originally called Decoration Day by the Grand Army of the Republic, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. 

That year, Americans visited Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia and other local resting places throughout the U.S. to decorate the graves of fallen troops. The Civil War ended three years prior (April 12, 1861, to April 9, 1865), and an estimated 620,000 lost their lives in the conflict.

2. Which state is the birthplace of Memorial Day?

President Lyndon B. Johnson proclaimed Waterloo, New York, the “birthplace of Memorial Day” on May 26, 1966, because records showed the village held one of the first observances on the local level a hundred years prior, according to the Library of Congress.

Johnson’s proclamation was made during the Vietnam War, which had been fought for 11 years at that point. The Vietnam War ran from Nov. 1, 1955, to April 30, 1975.

“Join me in prayer to the Almighty for the safety of our nation’s sons and daughters in Vietnam, for His blessing on those who have sacrificed their lives for this nation in this and all other struggles,” Johnson said, at the time. 

More than 20 other cities claim to be the birthplace of Memorial Day, including Boalsburg, Pennsylvania, which cites a first local observance dating back to October 1864. 

3. When did Memorial Day become a floating federal holiday?

Memorial Day became a floating federal holiday on Jan. 1, 1971, after the Uniform Monday Holiday Act went into effect, according to the U.S. Army Center of Military History. The law moved Memorial Day from May 30 to the last Monday in May. 

4. How many American troops have died in battle?

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs published an “America’s Wars” report in May 2021 that estimated the number of fallen troops who died in battle from 1775 to 1991 was 651,031. 

The agency also estimated that there were 308,800 in-theater deaths (territories where wars were fought) and non-theater 230,254 deaths (territories where wars weren’t fought) during the same period.

5. How many active-duty service members are in the U.S. armed forces?

Approximately 1.3 million active-duty service members make up the U.S. armed forces, according to the U.S. Department of Defense. 

The agency is also backed by 750,000 civilian personnel and more than 811,000 National Guard and Reserve service members, which makes the department the nation’s largest employer. 

6. How many people participate in the National Memorial Day parade? 

More than 10,000 people participate in the National Memorial Day Parade in Washington, D.C., according to Music Celebrations International – the parade’s co-organizer – which works alongside the American Veterans Center.

7. How many people visit the Arlington National Cemetery around Memorial Day?

Arlington National Cemetery reports that it receives more than 135,000 Memorial Day visitors over the holiday weekend each year.

8. How many flags are placed on Arlington National Cemetery graves?

On Memorial Day, approximately 260,000 graves at the Arlington National Cemetery are decorated with American flags, according to WalletHub, a personal finance website. 

9. How many Americans travel during Memorial Day weekend?

Memorial Day is viewed as the unofficial start of summer by some Americans, which has made it a busy day for travel. 

The American Automobile Association estimates that more than 42 million Americans will travel over the holiday weekend, according to an updated travel forecast.

About 37.1 million Americans are expected to travel by car over Memorial Day weekend while nearly 3.4 million Americans are expected to travel by air. Roughly 1.85 million are expected to travel by alternative means, such as cruises, buses and trains.

10. How much money is spent on Memorial Day barbecues (meat in particular)?

The holiday weekend is also a big day for barbecues. WalletHub reports that national meat sales will reach $1.6 billion during Memorial Day celebrations and gatherings this year.