There is no greater honor, no deeper indication of a nation’s mourning, than to lower flags at half-staff to mark a dignitary’s passing.
Perhaps the earliest example of such recognition in United States came in 1799, when the death of George Washington occasioned the Navy Department to order its vessels to “wear their colors half-mast high.”
However, the practice dates to at least 1612 when English explorer James Hall, heading a mission to Greenland on the ship Heart’s Ease, was killed by native Inuits. When his exploratory boat returned to the ship, its flag was lowered in “a sign of death,” according to the quartermaster’s account. The crew of the Heart’s Ease then lowered its flag to half-mast for the voyage home to England.
In its simplest interpretation, a flag at half-staff suggests all who are loyal to the flag are suffering a shared loss. Today, the concern is less, “Why do we lower flags to half-staff?” than getting such displays right.
Respecting This Show of Respect
When flown at half-staff, the flag must first be hoisted to the peak, then lowered to half-staff position. When lowering the flag, it must be raised again to the peak before being lowered.
State, International and custom flags displayed with the U.S. flag should be flown at half-staff or removed when the U.S flag is at half-staff.
Fundamentally, there is no difference between referring to flags at half-mast and flags at half-staff. Half-staff is used exclusively in the United States Flag Code, but the general practice is to use half-mast when referring to flags flown on ships and half-staff otherwise.
So, when do we fly flags at half-staff? According to the flag code:
- By order of the president as a sign of respect following the death of a principal governmental figure, other officials or foreign dignitaries.
- By proclamation of a governor upon the death of a past or current official or active-duty member of the Armed Forces from that state, territory or possession. The same authority is granted to the mayor of the District of Columbia.
- For 30 days following the death of the president or a former president; 10 days following the death of the vice president, the chief justice, a retired chief justice or the speaker of the house; from the death until the interment of a Supreme Court justice, secretaries of executive and military departments and former vice presidents and governors of a state, territory or possession; and on the day of death and the following day for a member of Congress.
- On Peace Officers Memorial Day (May 15) unless that day is also Armed Forces Day, Patriot Day (September 11), National Firefighters Memorial Day (typically a Sunday in October) and Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day (December 7).
- Until noon on Memorial Day, after which the flag is raised to full-staff.
Of course, any of these rules and customs can be altered by the president “whenever he deems it to be appropriate or desirable,” according to the code.
Remember, the flag code is a guide. Presidential and gubernatorial orders apply only to flags on government buildings. They do not apply to flags displayed by private individuals and organizations. However, respect drives both the code and any desire to acknowledge a fallen compatriot. Respect suggests you do not honor the latter without honoring the former.
There is much history behind flying a flag at half-staff. At A Stars & Stripes Flag Corporation, we have over 35 years of experience making these flags and understanding the history behind them. If you have any questions, please contact us. We are happy to help!