At dawn on Monday, Memorial Day, the U.S. flag will rise to the top of the flagpole, only to descend to half-staff until noon — at which time it is returned to its proper height until the end of the day.
The U.S. Flag Code specifies when the U.S. flag can fly at half-staff — typically as a sign of mourning to mark the passing of prominent politicians, and more recently for fallen service members or peace officers. However, when the flag is ordered to half-staff it generally remains there until sundown of that day, unless the order specifies a longer period of mourning. Returning the flag to full staff is a custom unique to Memorial Day.
The origin for this custom is unknown today. A 1906 Army regulation includes instructions on the custom, but not an explanation as to what the custom signifies. In 1924 Congress proclaimed in U.S. Code Title 4, Section 6 that “the nation lives, and the flag is a symbol of illumination.” Raising the flag from half-staff at noon may symbolize the nation’s persistence in the midst of loss. This makes sense when you consider that lowering the flag at day’s end on military posts is part of a “retreat ceremony,” so returning the flag to its proper elevation declares that the flag will not retreat even in the presence of death.
The practice may also be seen as a tribute to those veterans who did not lose their lives in service to the United States — in a sense, remembering those who fell and those who remain with us.
There is no definitive answer as to when displaying the flag at half-staff became a sign of mourning. The earliest recorded example of this tradition dates to 1612, when the commander of the British ship Heart’s Ease, while searching for the Northwest Passage between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, was killed by native Inuit in what is now Canada. The gesture of displaying the flag at half-mast was apparently understood at the time as a sign of death, both at sea and back home on the Thames River.
A similar explanation indicates that the British Royal Navy, beginning in 1660, customarily flew their flags at half-mast every Jan. 30, the anniversary of the death of King Charles I. This practice superceded that of flying a black flag or sail, which may be why some accounts contend that the half-staff flag makes room for an invisible “flag of death.”
Whatever the true origin, we know that the U.S. flag normally flies at the top of the flagpole, and to see it in any other position is a clear statement that something significant has occurred.