Flying the flag at half-staff (or for those with Naval backgrounds, half-mast) began in the 1700’s. In the British tradition, the flag would be flown one flag’s length lower than normal to leave room for the invisible “Death’s Flag” that would rise above it. Over time, the tradition of showing respect and mourning by a country for it’s lost citizens has been adopted by many countries.
The challenge is, are we becoming frivolous with this act that was once used only rarely?
We see that the President of the United States is directed to fly the American Flag at half-staff for the death of principle figures of the United States. Specifically, it is to be flown for
- President (including former)
- Vice-Presidents (including former),
- the Chief Justice (including retired)
- the Speaker of the House of Representatives,
- Secretaries of executive/military departments,
- Governors of states, territories, or protectorates
- current Members of Congress
- and, Peace Officer Memorial Day
The President has discretion to fly the flag for other officials or foreign dignitaries. Meanwhile, the Governor of a State can order the American Flag to half-staff for the principle figures of the state, as well as, citizens of the state who die while on active duty to our military.
And yet today, we see political figures across the spectrum, from mayors to the President, and local organizations flying flags at half-staff for various other losses. Universities are ordering flags to half-staff. It’s flown for mass shootings, dead music celebrities, and dead faculty. Ultimately, it is Flag Code, so there is no penalty for doing it wrong.
With this in mind, again, I ask you to consider if we are beginning to use this honor to casually. Like Memorial Day, it has begun to lose some of it’s original meaning. We learn from Ecclesiastes 3:1. There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven: 2a time to be born and a time to die,… 4a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance,… 8a time to love and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace. Are we spending too much time as a nation and community focused on mourning? Is it time to laugh, dance, love, and be at peace?
When hoisting a flag that is to be displayed at half-staff, it should be hoisted to the finial for an instant, then lowered to half-staff. Likewise when it is lowered at the end of the day, it is to be hoisted to the finial for an instant, and then lowered. If a flag cannot be lowered (e.g. on a fixed staff), a mourning ribbon may be secured to the finial
A current and historical listing of executive orders may be found at: http://www.halfstaff.us/
The United States Flag code states:
4 USC § 7 (m) The flag, when flown at half-staff, should be first hoisted to the peak for an instant and then lowered to the half-staff position. The flag should be again raised to the peak before it is lowered for the day. On Memorial Day the flag should be displayed at half-staff until noon only, then raised to the top of the staff. By order of the President, the flag shall be flown at half-staff upon the death of principal figures of the United States Government and the Governor of a State, territory, or possession, as a mark of respect to their memory. In the event of the death of other officials or foreign dignitaries, the flag is to be displayed at half-staff according to Presidential instructions or orders, or in accordance with recognized customs or practices not inconsistent with law. In the event of the death of a present or former official of the government of any State, territory, or possession of the United States or the death of a member of the Armed Forces from any State, territory, or possession who dies while serving on active duty, the Governor of that State, territory, or possession may proclaim that the National flag shall be flown at half-staff, and the same authority is provided to the Mayor of the District of Columbia with respect to present or former officials of the District of Columbia and members of the Armed Forces from the District of Columbia. When the Governor of a State, territory, or possession, or the Mayor of the District of Columbia, issues a proclamation under the preceding sentence that the National flag be flown at half-staff in that State, territory, or possession or in the District of Columbia because of the death of a member of the Armed Forces, the National flag flown at any Federal installation or facility in the area covered by that proclamation shall be flown at half-staff consistent with that proclamation. The flag shall be flown at half-staff 30 days from the death of the President or a former President; 10 days from the day of death of the Vice President, the Chief Justice or a retired Chief Justice of the United States, or the Speaker of the House of Representatives; from the day of death until interment of an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, a Secretary of an executive or military department, a former Vice President, or the Governor of a State, territory, or possession; and on the day of death and the following day for a Member of Congress. The flag shall be flown at half-staff on Peace Officers Memorial Day, unless that day is also Armed Forces Day. As used in this subsection—
(1) the term “half-staff” means the position of the flag when it is one-half the distance between the top and bottom of the staff;
(2) the term “executive or military department” means any agency listed under sections 101 and 102 of title 5, United States Code; and
(3) the term “Member of Congress” means a Senator, a Representative, a Delegate, or the Resident Commissioner from Puerto Rico.