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Why Do We Fly Flags at Half-Staff?

Posted: 6-20-14 | Parker Flags

The flag is sometimes flown at half-staff (or half-mast) throughout the United States, and this tradition is also carried out in many countries throughout the world. Let’s take a look at why we fly flags at half-staff in the United States.

Before we get into the “why” let’s look at what half-staff means. Half-mast is flying a flag below the summit of the flagpole (mast), however it is typically referred to as half-staff in the United States when the flag is not used on a ship, boat or other nautical vessel.

The main reason for flying a flag at half-staff in many countries, including the U.S., is as a symbol of respect, mourning, or distress. The tradition of flying the flag at half-mast began in the 17th century, and with respect to mourning, it is believed that the flag is lowered to make room for an "invisible flag of death" flying above.

Another possible reason comes from Naval battles that were fought early in American history. After a battle sometimes the flags would fall, and out of respect for the battle they would leave the flags at half-mast.

How do you know when to fly your flag at half-staff?

In the United States the President can issue national proclamations requiring flags flown at half-staff, and governors of states and territories are also allowed to order U.S. and state flags in their jurisdiction to be flown at half-staff.

Presidential and governor’s orders are typically the result of the death of principal figures of the United States government or former or current state officials, or for a member of the armed forces who has died in active duty. A governor's authority to issue the order is more restricted than the President's and affects only his or her state, not the entire country.

What is the proper process for flying the flag at half-staff?

When you fly a flag at half-staff, you don’t just drop it down. You have to raise the flag all the way to the top, and then lower it to half. It should be hoisted to the finial for a brief instant and then it is able to be lowered to half-staff (or mast).

Fun Flag Facts

  • Under federal law, flags of states, cities, localities, and pennants of societies, cannot be placed above the flag of the United States. For this reason all other flags fly at half-staff when the U.S. flag has been ordered to.
  • There is no penalty for failure to comply with the laws regarding flying flags, as to enforce such a law would violate the First Amendment.
  • On Memorial Day, flags only fly at half-staff until noon, and then they are raised back up until sunset in honor of the nation’s war heroes.

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