Flying the Flag at Half-Staff
The United States Flag Store is more than just the largest online flag vendor. It is the go to place for anything and everything about flags. You will find a whole host of informative facts as well as the proper flag etiquette. Have you ever wondered what the protocol is for flying the flag at half-staff?
When you consult the Flag Etiquette section at the United States Flag Store you will learn that flying the American flag at half-staff or half-mast for flags on ships is a symbol of grief and mourning. The exact origin of the tradition is unknown. However, the first recorded record of flying a flag at half-mast occurred in 1612 on board the Heart's Ease when the flag was lowered halfway after the death of the commanding officer in the line of duty.
Typically, flags are flown at half-staff of Memorial Day until noon, September 11 for Patriot's Day and on December 7 for Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day. The President as well as the governor of any state can order that flags be flown at half-staff at any time during the year and for any length of time. Often it occurs after a tragic event to honor those whose lives have been lost.
There are also specific times when flags are flown at half-staff such as when a president or former president dies. When this happens, American flags are flown at half-staff for 30 days.
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The term "half-staff" refers to the position of a flag when it is halfway between the top and bottom of the staff. It is often synonymous with "half-mast", although it is argued that this term should only be used if the flag is displayed on a ship or nautical flagpole. The measurement does not have to be exact, but it should be at least the width of your flag. This is to imply that something is missing above the flag. Many scholars refer to this space as the "invisible flag of death," (Martuccio).
Flying a flag at half-staff or half-mast is a sign for grief and mourning. It is flown following the death of certain government officials, in times of national distress, on various holidays, and at any other time it is instructed by the president or government. There are specific instructions in the Flag Code for lowering the flag and the time frame it should be flown. This information is available in the Flag Code section below.
The practice of half-staffing or half-masting a flag has been taking place for some time. No one knows when and why this tradition began, but the earliest recorded incident was in 1612. It took place after the commander of the ship Heart’s Ease was killed by a native Inuit while searching for the Northwest Passage between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. His crew flew their flag at half-mast in mourning. When the ship reconvened with its fleet, the gesture was immediately recognized by crew members, insinuating that half-masting was already common practice at that time.
- To fly your flag half-staff, first hoist it to the peak, then lower it to the half-staff position.
- On Memorial Day fly your flag at half-staff until noon, then raise it back to the top.
- Fly your flag at half-staff on Peace Officers Memorial Day, unless it is also Armed Forces Day.
- The President can order that the flag be flown half-staff at any time and for any duration of time.
- Patriot Day (September 11)
- Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day (December 7)
*It is also appropriate to fly your flag at half-staff on:
- Following the death of the President or a former President, the flag should be flown at half-staff for 30 days.
- Following the death of the Vice President, the Chief Justice, a retired Chief Justice of the United States or the Speaker of the House of Representatives, the flag should be flown at half-staff for 10 days.
- Following the death of an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, a Secretary of an executive or military department, a former Vice President, or the Governor of a State, territory or possession, the flag should be flown at half-staff from the day of death until interment.
- Following the death of a Member of Congress, the flag should be flown at half-staff the day of death and the following day.
Half-staff or half-mast? by David Martuccio Flagwire 2006.
The Care and Display of the American Flag by the Editors of SharpMan.com 2004.
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