It is common knowledge that a half-mast or half-staff flag is a symbol of respect for a person/persons who died to show that we are mourning as a nation. The terms are used interchangeably. “Half-mast” is commonly used in the navy, while “half-staff” is when the flag is on land.

Making Room For The Invisible Flag Of Death

The tradition of half-staffing the flag began in the 17th century. It is the act of flying the flag below the pole or mast’s summit. According to Mental Floss, “…the oldest commonly accepted reference to a half-staff flag dates back to 1612 when the captain of the British ship Heart’s Ease died on a journey to Canada. When the ship returned to London, it was flying its flag at half-mast to honor the departed captain.” and that “…the sailors were making room for the invisible flag of Death. This explanation jibes with the British tradition of flying a ‘half-staff’ flag exactly one flag’s width lower than its normal position to underscore that Death’s flag is flapping above it.”

The American flag is flying at half-mast in Buchenwald, Thuringia, Germany. Photo courtesy of Robert Pettit.

How it works is that the flag should be raised until the summit first and then lowered down to a half-staff position. Similarly, the flag should be hoisted up first before lowering down.

Half-Staffing Code

Since our flag is considered a visual symbol our nation itself, the government is the deciding authority as to how it should be handled. With this in mind, in March 1954 President Dwight D. Eisenhower codified a set of rules for when the flag of the United States shall be flown at half-staff and for how long.