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Why is the American Flag at Half Staff?

Updated on July 6, 2013
The flag at half staff at the USS Utah Memorial.
The flag at half staff at the USS Utah Memorial. | Source

American Flag at Half Staff

It’s common to see the American flag flying at half staff.

Sometimes the reason is clear, as when the flag is flown at half staff to honor our veterans on Memorial Day. But sometimes the reason is unclear, as when the flag was flown at half staff on October 16, 2012 in memory of the death of Arlen Specter by presidential proclamation.

What is the origin of flying the American flag at half staff? When is the flag flown at half staff? How should the flag be flown at half staff? What about state flags? This article answers these questions for anyone who flies the flag at their home or business, or anyone who wants to understand this custom.

Origin of Flying the Flag at Half Staff

The custom of flying the flag at half staff dates back to at least the 17th century. In 1612, the crew of the ship Heart’s Ease flew their flag at half staff to mourn the death of their captain, killed during a search for the Northwest Passage between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The custom was already known by that time, since it was readily recognized when their ship rejoined their fleet.

Since then, the gesture of flying the flag at half staff has been used as a symbol of mourning, respect and distress. “Half staff” refers to the position of the flag when it is halfway between the top and bottom of a flagpole. This term is often used interchangeably with “half mast”, although the latter term should arguably be used only when the flag is flown from the mast or flagpole of a ship.

The terms “half staff” and “half mast” do not require the flag to be flown exactly halfway between the top and bottom of a flagpole or mast. It is enough that the flag be positioned at least the width of the flag below the top in order to imply that “the invisible flag of death” is positioned above the flag.

For many years, there were no regulations governing the custom of flying the flag at half staff. Thus, the days when the flag was flown at half staff and the methods for flying it so varied widely. But on March 1, 1954, President Eisenhower issued a proclamation to standardize this practice.

When to Fly the Flag at Half Staff

The dates when the American flag should be flown at half staff are determined by federal law, or by order of the President of the U.S. or the Governor of a State. The flag is to be flown at half staff on the following days:

• On Peace Officers Memorial Day (May 15), unless that day is Armed Forces Day.

• On Memorial Day (last Monday in May) from sunrise to noon.

• On Patriot Day (September 11).

• On the date of the National Fallen Firefighters Memorial Service (the first Sunday in October).

• On Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day (December 7).

Also, the flag is to be flown at half staff under the following circumstances:

• For 30 days after the death of a current or former President or President-Elect.

• For 10 days after the death of a current Vice President, current or retired Chief Justice, or current Speaker of the House of Representatives.

• From the day of death until the burial of a Supreme Court associate justice, a secretary of an executive or military department, a former vice president, or the Governor of a State, territory or possession.

• On the day of death and the following day for a member of Congress.

• Upon proclamation of the President of the United States, such as remembrance of the 9/11 attacks.

• Upon proclamation of the Governor of a State.

Under the Flag Code, private citizens and non-government buildings can choose to fly their flags at half staff to honor local citizens. For example, a private citizen can choose to fly his flag at half staff to honor the death of a local teacher, sports coach or other community figure.

How to Fly the Flag at Half Staff

On most half staff days, the flag should be flown at half staff from sunrise to sunset. The exception is Memorial Day, when the flag should be flown at half staff only until noon, and then raised briskly to the top of the staff until sunset.

When the flag is hoisted on a vertical flagpole, the flag should be raised briskly to the top of the pole for a moment before being lowered to its half staff position. When the flag is taken down at sunset, the flag should again be raised to the top of the pole before being lowered to the bottom.

As mentioned, the “half staff” position does not require the flag to be flown halfway between the top and bottom of the flagpole. It is enough for the flag to be positioned at least the width of the flag below the top. If the flagpole is a telescoping pole, the flag may be put on the second set of rings, with the top set of rings being left empty. If the flag cannot be lowered (as with the flags mounted on many homes), a black ribbon or streamer can be attached to the top of the flag as an alternative to lowering it. The ribbon should be the same width as a stripe on the flag, and should be the same length as the flag. If the flag is wall-mounted, three black mourning bows can be attached to the top edge of the flag, with one bow at each end of the top edge and the last bow at the center of the top edge.

Flying Other Flags at Half Staff

Under U.S. law, no flag of a state, city or locality, or pennant of a society, may be placed above the flag of the United States. Thus, whenever the American flag is being flown at half staff, any state or other flags should also be flown at half staff so they are not placed above the American flag.

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    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 4 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Very interesting! I never really knew all of the instances when the flag should be a half staff. Thanks for the education!

    • eHealer profile image

      Deborah 4 years ago from Las Vegas

      This is great info, I am a veteran (I was a nurse in the AF) and I never knew these appropriate days to fly the flag! Thanks for giving the info, my military friends will now be proud that I know it. Voted up Tips!

    • rfmoran profile image

      Russ Moran 4 years ago from Long Island, New York

      Interesting history here, but the part of your article that discusses the private citizens' exception pretty much leaves it up to anybody to make the decision.

    • aykianink profile image

      aykianink 4 years ago

      "On Memorial Day (last Monday in May) from sunrise to noon." Intriguing. I always thought it was for the full day.

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