Why Are Flags Put at Half-Mast?

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Why Are Flags Put at Half-Mast?

In the United States, flying a flag is a little more complicated than you might initially think. There are rules for how to clean the flag, how to burn the flag, and how to fly the flag in the first place.

There are also rules for how and why flags should be put at half-mast: the solemn occasion when the national or other flags are flown at half their maximum height on their poles. But why are flags put at half-mast in the first place?

This is actually a naval tradition that stretches back for centuries. Let’s take a closer look at this civil ceremony now.

Flags as Symbols

To understand why flags are put at half-mast in the first place, you first have to grasp what flags really are. Flags are not just rectangles of cloth with varying colors and symbols. They’re symbols in and of themselves.

In fact, national flags are regarded as some of the most sacred cultural artifacts across the world. Flying a flag for your country on your property is considered a sign of patriotism. Burning a flag disrespectfully is a huge social faux pas, even in some of the most liberal circles.

Similarly, how you display a flag and at what height can affect the kind of message you’re trying to send. Indeed, just as flags can be symbols themselves, how we display the flags can be symbolic as well.

What Does a Flag at Half-Mast Mean? 

Flags are typically flown at the top of their masts or staffs, which gives them the height necessary to waive or blow as dramatically as possible. When a flag is at half-mast, it is lowered to about half its height, where it blows without as much vigor or energy.

A flag at “half-mast” is essentially a flag in mourning. While the inanimate object itself can’t feel any emotions, the idea is that people seeing the half-mast flag will understand that there is a time of mourning taking place and will be more respectful than otherwise.

A flag at half-mast often displays:

  • respect, particularly for heroic actions or sacrifices

  • mourning, especially if a government or well-loved public individual has passed away in the line of duty

  • distress, such as if a nation is under attack or recently suffered a military defeat

  • a salute, such as when a transfer of power is taking place

In general, citizens have to know what event has happened for them to grasp the full meaning of a flag at half-mast. But a flag waving at half-mast at all means something important has occurred, which may cause them to seek out more information or to take part in civil events.

In the United States, a flag flying at half-mast is almost always a sign of mourning or respect. For example, flags were flown at half-mast across the country after the recent Sandy Hook shooting, after the 9/11 attacks, and so on.

More example circumstances of flying the national flag at half-mast include:

  • Flying at half-mast for 30 days after the death of a current or former president, or the death of a President-elect

  • Flying at half-mast for ten days after the death of a vice president or retired Chief Justice

  • Flying at half-mast on Memorial Day until noon, at which point it is gradually raised to show respect for deceased Armed Forces. This occasion is particularly important since it’s the armed forces who are responsible for many of the freedoms we enjoy every day, such as the freedom to bear arms and freedom of religion

Half-Mast vs Half-Staff

Technically, most flags that fly at half-mast actually fly at “half-staff.” That’s because a mast is a part of a ship at sea, so land-based flags can’t fly at half-mast at all. A flag can only be officially referred to as flying at half-mast if it is flying on a ship.

However, most people use the terms half-mast and half-staff interchangeably, so they mean the same thing. The only people who may care whether you use the correct term are U.S. Navy personnel.

Who Can Order Flags to Be Set at Half-Mast? 

In the United States, the president is the only person who can order flags to be set at half-mast across the country. When the president gives this order, government institutions, such as military bases, schools, and government offices or buildings like the Pentagon, must lower their flags to half-mast as a sign of respect.

Individual citizens do not need to follow this order. In fact, the president technically can’t give any regular citizen any order at all! But most Americans with even the slightest amount of patriotism will match this effort in a display of solidarity.

Setting your flag at half-mast shows that you are with the rest of your country in showing respect or mourning, depending on what event just took place. Plus, it may inspire your neighbors to put their own flags at half-mast as well.

Furthermore, administrators of federal buildings can sometimes set their flags to be set at half-mast for local events or tragedies. For example, a local town’s city hall may order flags to be set at half-mast for the funeral of the mayor. This event may not be repeated throughout the country due to its small size.

History of Half-Masting

Half-masting a flag as a tradition actually extends back to 1612. Historians believe that a British expedition to Canada under Captain James Hall, who led the ship Heart’s Ease, started the practice when Hall was inadvertently killed by an Inuit spear.

In response, Captain Hall’s crew lowered the ship’s flag to half-mast. Historians don't know why the crew did this since there isn't any precedent for the tradition before this event. There is some speculation that this may have been a flag-raising communication gone wrong or because of haste.

Nevertheless, the story inspired the modern tradition of setting a flag to half-mast in order to show respect for the dead. One other, spookier idea floated around by sailors from time to time is that lowering the flag to half-mast makes room for the so-called “flag of death.”

According to the above story, the Heart’s Ease returned to London still flying its flag at half-mast, which implied that the crew was still sailing under the “watch of death.”

Ultimately, whether or not the above story is accurate is irrelevant. The tradition continued into the British Navy, which then made its way to America by proxy. In America, the earliest historical record of a flag being flown at half-mast was in 1799.

In that year, the early U.S. Navy department ordered its ships to lower their flags to half-mast to show respect for George Washington, who had recently passed away. It’s easy to see how this tradition expanded over time, particularly when presidents or other major government officials died.

Despite this de facto acceptance of the tradition, it was not officially adopted into a rule until Pres. Dwight Eisenhower issued an order called Proclamation 3044. This proclamation standardized the custom for any national flags flown for any government or federal buildings. Now there’s a whole rulebook and associated penalties for not following the half-mast tradition!

How to “Half-Mast” a Flag Respectfully

Flying a flag at half-mast respectively and correctly actually has a few steps.

To fly a national flag at half-mast, you must:

  • Ensure that the flag being raised is in peak condition and is clean

  • Raise the flag to the topmost part of the flagpole or mast for a moment

  • Then lower the flag to half-mast. Do not just raise the flag to half-mast without taking it to the top first and lowering it afterward

Depending on the custom being observed or the event being shown respect, you can either return the flag to the topmost position (as in the case with Memorial Day) or simply lower the flag at the end of the ceremony.

The idea is that raising the national flags of the top acknowledges the sovereignty of the United States while lowering it to half-mast allows the respectful tradition to be given its full weight. It’s as if the country itself is bowing before the deceased. 

Summary

Ultimately, the flag being raised to half-mast is one of the most honored and solemn traditions in American culture. It has also been adopted by other countries around the world, who have added their own slight differences to the tradition. Regardless, it’s important to observe these occasions with seriousness and respect when they come around.

If you own your own American flag, consider taking part in this tradition if and when it’s ever appropriate. You can find a variety of American flags at our store. Remember, you don’t have to have an American flag to fly a banner at half-mast out of respect. Any flag flown at half-mast will be seen as a respectful gesture.

 

Sources

Why Are Flags Put at Half-Mast? | study.com

Flying the American Flag at Half Staff | va.gov

Flag Code FAQ: Half staff; half mast | ushistory.org

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