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.

Death of the President or Former President

This perhaps is one of the most well-known reasons. “The flag of the United States shall be flown at half-staff on all buildings, grounds, and naval vessels of the Federal Government in the District of Columbia and throughout the United States and its Territories and possessions…” and that should remain so for 30 days from the day of death. It should be all in United States embassies, legations, and other facilities abroad, including all military facilities and naval vessels and stations.

Death of the Vice President, Chief Justice, Speaker of the House of Representatives

The flag should be at half-mast for ten days if it’s for an “Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, a member of the Cabinet, a former Vice President, the President pro tempore of the Senate, the Majority Leader of the Senate, the Minority Leader of the Senate, the Majority Leader of the House of Representatives, or the Minority Leader of the House of Representatives.” It should be from the day of death until the interment.

Memorial Day

3rd Class Jajuan Mangual adjusts the American flag on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77) to half-mast in remembrance of the victims and families impacted by the July 20 shooting at the Century 16 theatre in Aurora, Colo.(U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Joseph R. Vincent/Released)

On Memorial Day, the flag should be flown at flag should be at half-staff from sunrise until noon and then raised to the top until sunset to honor our country’s fallen heroes.

Other notable dates are Patriot Day on September 11th, Pearl Harbor Day on December 7th, and honoring the firefighters every 7th of October.