Questions and Answers about Display of the Flag on Memorial Day

by John M. Hartvigsen

The practice of displaying flags at half-staff is centuries old and has been the custom in nations all around the globe.  Still, it has grown and changed a great deal in the United States in recent years and not always for the good.

Reporters from many media outlets have interviewed me over several years and perhaps I can share some things I have learned in answering reporters’ questions.  So, here are some questions and answers about flying the flag at half-staff.

  1. When did Americans begin flying the flag at half-staff until noon on Memorial Day?

Flying the U.S. flag at half-staff on Memorial Day began decades before the National Flag Conference wrote the first version of the Flag Code in 1923.

Interestingly, Memorial Day was originally the only day during the year that the Flag was to be automatically flown at half-staff on a holiday. All other displays at half-staff flag display were to show mourning at the death of a person or persons.  In recent years, automatic display at half-staff has increased to include other dates such as September 11thand Pearl Harbor Day.

In the United Kingdom, display of their flag at half-staff is done only to show mourning for a death.   The British Union Jack does not fly at half-staff to note anniversaries but rather to show mourning at the time of death.

Queen Elizabeth II has ruled longer than any other British sovereign, and many British subjects cannot remember a time before she was queen.  Nevertheless when she dies, flags will be frown at half-staff only until her burial, which will be only for a period of about twelve days.

2.  Why is the flag only displayed at half-staff until noon on Memorial Day?

Flying the flag at half-staff on the holiday developed with the Memorial Day observance, but no contemporary explanation tells why the flag us flown at the half-staff only in the morning.

However, it seems likely that display at half-staff before noon began to honor those who had died, and display at full-staff during afternoon hours honored veterans who were still living.

3.  The flag is raised to full-staff before lowing it to half-staff, and it is again raised to the top of the flagpole before lowering at the end of the day. Why?

When raising or lowering a flag or ship’s ensign, the saluting point is at the highest position, and it is raised to full-staff to honor the flag and nation it represent

4.  Which term is correct, half-staff or half-staff?

Showing mourning through the display of flags began at sea where is known as half-mast. As a matter of fact, display a flag in mourning on land or sea is known as half-mast in Great Britain.  In the U.S.A. we call the display half-mast at sea but half-staff on land.

5.  Is it true that only the U.S. President, State Governors and the Mayor of Washington, D.C. can order flags placed at half-staff?

Because the U.S. Flag Code mentions these three officials, some have interpreted that only these three officials can order the flag to be lowered to half-staff, and that it can only been done when the whole nation mourns.

The U.S. President normally issues a Presidential Proclamation ordering that the U.S. Armed Forces, Federal Installations and all Federal Departments place the United States flag at half-staff.  Nevertheless, in the Proclamation for Memorial Day of 2019, the president request “the Governors of the United States and its Territories, and the appropriate officials of all units of government, to direct the flag be flown at half-staff until noon on this Memorial Day on all buildings, grounds, and naval vessels throughout the United States and in all areas under its jurisdiction and control….”

This demonstrates that the President recognized that he has no authority to order flag be placed at half-staff in all locations, and so he asks governors and other appropriate officials to order the display for locations “under their jurisdiction.”

Also significantly the president acknowledges that he has not authority to order private individual to fly the flag at half-staff, but this is a private decision.  Therefore, he “request[s] the people of the United States to display the flag at half-staff from their homes for the customary forenoon period.”

The Supreme Court has also ruled that display of the flag is up to the individual.

6.  Can the flag be displayed at half-staff for local individuals or family members?

Some would say no, but the person who own or has jurisdiction over a flagpole has the right to decide if or how a flag will be displayed on that pole. This is not only in line with Supreme Court ruling, but with the origins of placing flags half-mast in mourning were decided by the ship’s captain.

It is not surprising that Military Commanders have authority to lover flags on their installations or ships to half-staff or half-mast in mourning for members of their command who die.  However, the President has delegated the authority to place flags in mourning, at half-staff, to various military and officials in various Federal Departments.  For example, if a Forest Ranger is killed in a forest fire, the head of the U.S. Forest Service has delegated authority to fly the U.S. Flag at half-staff from the Secretary of Agriculture, who in turn received the delegated authority from the President.

It is usual, and—I believe appropriate—for a flag to be displayed at half-staff at a high school for a student.  I remember one instance where the school’s flag was flying at half-staff as the funeral cortege for the deceased student passed the school on the way to the cemetery.  That was a touching and appropriate way to show the mourning that students at the school felt for a classmate.

The family of a deceased veteran in my neighborhood flew the flag at half-staff on the flagpole in front of his home.  These displays recognized a person mourning that was appropriately recognized by places the U.S. flag in mourning.


Fly the flag to honor; fly the flag at half-staff to show grief and mourning.





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