Half Staff Origins

Many of you may have noticed that the flags have been flown at half-staff in the last week or so, first for the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary, and most recently in honor of Senator Daniel K. Inouye.

Flying a flag at half-staff means flying the flag below the summit of the flagpole. This is done in many countries as a symbol of respect and mourning or distress. The tradition of flying the flag at half-staff is very old; it is believed to have started in the 17th century. In 1612 the captain of the British ship Heart’s Ease died on a journey to Canada. The sailors lowered the flag to make room for the invisible flag of death. This signified death’s presence, power, and prominence.

You may wonder who can order a flag to be at half-staff. In the United States the President can issue an executive order for the flag to be flown at half-staff upon the death of principal figures of the United States government and others, as a mark of respect to their memory. When the President issues such an order, all government buildings, offices, public schools and military bases are to fly their flags at half-staff. Federal law states that the flags of states and cities, whether residential or commercial, should never be placed above the flag of the United States; thus, all other flags also fly at half-staff when the U.S. flag has been ordered to fly at half-staff.

In the U.S. the flag is to be flown at half-staff in the following situations:
•    For thirty days after the death of a current or former president or president-elect
•    For ten days after the death of a current vice president, current or retired chief justice, or current speaker of the House of Representatives.
•    On the day of death and the following day for a Member of Congress.
•    On Memorial Day until noon
•    Peace Officers Memorial Day, May 15
•    Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day, December 7
•    Patriot Day, September 11
•    And also upon presidential proclamation for different tragedies.

You can also participate in displaying the flag at half-staff, demonstrating your honor and respect at your home with a residential flagpole.  When lowering a flag to half-staff be sure to first raise the flag to the top of the flagpole and then slowly lower it to half-staff.

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