When I was a kid some of the older members of my family still called it Decoration Day, the name that went back to 1868, when the headstones of and monuments to Civil War dead were decorated in their honor.
Wikipedia reports that the name gradually changed from Decoration Day to Memorial Day, and the holiday did not get its official name until 1967. I do think Memorial Day is more descriptive, telling you why you're doing something rather than just what you're doing. "Decoration Day" doesn't explain what it's about. Heck, we got Party City now; we decorate for everything.
Memorial Day both benefits and suffers from its place in the calendar.
According to the US Memorial Day site, May 30 was the original date for the holiday, chosen because it was in the spring (when cemetery decorating usually occurred, flowers being in bloom) and because it was one date that had no Civil War battles, so the day wouldn't be over who won and who lost. (There were so many Civil War battles, I'm surprised they found a date at all.) Since 1971, by federal law, the holiday is officially celebrated on the last Monday in May.
Its spot, though, marks it as the unofficial start of summer, even though summer doesn't start for for weeks and schools are not out everywhere. When I was a kid we sweltered in non-air-conditioned classrooms in June, dying a little inside as the hours ticked by. (Then we walked home uphill in the snow! In bare feet! By cracky! Made men of us!)
That unofficial summer thing helps people to pay attention to Memorial Day, unlike Veterans Day, which tends to go unnoticed and is not a day off for most of us. We always know Memorial Day is coming, we have the day off, we make plans.
And that brings us to the problem with the holiday's place in the calendar; we pay attention in part for the wrong reason -- barbecues and parties, mostly. There are parades, of course, and other public observances, but I've noticed attendance locally has plummeted as 9/11 grows smaller in the rearview mirror. Maybe it's a New York thing. We suck at war. New Yorkers may be tough individually, but get us in a group and we surrender.
I'm as bad as anyone; there's a Mass today for all the town's war dead that I'm not going to be able to make this year, to go with the parade I was unable to make yesterday. My excuses are valid, but excuses don't honor anybody.
I notice that there's a growing campaign against wishing people "happy Memorial Day," and I think that's good. I don't want to stop others from doing fun things on the weekend, but that's weekend stuff; the Memorial stuff is not fun.
I'm sorry I won't be doing my part to honor our dead. I try to donate to veterans' causes and I pray for our fallen fighters, that God will bless their souls, that God will make us more worthy of their sacrifice. Because a nation that worships celebrities, has no respect for the law, and spends its time fighting over whether men can use the girls' room is not a nation that's worth fighting for, let alone dying for.