It’s probably common knowledge that when Old Glory is flying at half-staff (or half-mast), it indicates a period of mourning, but unless it’s Memorial Day or a president has just died, people might not know why the flag is at half-staff. Who gets to declare a period of mourning? How long does the period last?
Fear not, dear patriot. I will answer all these questions and more.
On March 1, 1954, President Dwight D. Eisenhower ordered a presidential proclamation codifying the display of the flag of the United States at half-staff. Here are the basics you need to know:
The American flag is flown at half-staff above the White House Sunday, Dec. 1, 2018, in memory of 41st President George H. W. Bush.
(Official White House Photo by Keegan Barber)
Death of the President: 30 Days
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 for the period indicated upon the death of the President or a former President for thirty days from the day of death.
The flag shall also be flown at half-staff for such period at all United States embassies, legations, and other facilities abroad, including all military facilities and naval vessels and stations.
Death of the VP, Chief Justice, retired Chief Justice, or Speaker of the House: 10 days
But 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, the flag will fly at half-staff from the day of death until interment.
Honoring the seven astronauts who lost their lives aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia on Saturday, Feb. 1, 2003, the American flag was flown at half-staff over the White House Monday, Feb. 3. President George W. Bush has directed the government to fly the flag at half-staff through Wednesday, Feb. 5.
(White House photo by Paul Morse)
Other deaths “as appropriate”
For example, 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 metropolitan area of the District of Columbia on the day of death and on the following day upon the death of a United States Senator, Representative, Territorial Delegate, or the Resident Commissioner from the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, and it shall also be flown at half-staff on all buildings, grounds, and naval vessels of the Federal Government in the State, Congressional District, Territory, or Commonwealth of such Senator, Representative, Delegate, or Commissioner, respectively, from the day of death until interment.
In the event of the death of other officials, former officials, or foreign dignitaries, the flag of the United States shall be displayed at half-staff in accordance with such orders or instructions as may be issued by or at the direction of the President, or in accordance with recognized customs or practices not inconsistent with law.
Visitors on the USS Arizona Memorial as the flag flies at half-staff.
On Memorial Day and other notable dates
According to the VA, on Memorial Day the flag should be flown at half-staff from sunrise until noon only, then raised briskly to the top of the staff until sunset, in honor of our nation’s fallen heroes.
There are other notable dates throughout the year that are honored with the half-staff display, such as September 11th (Patriot Day), December 7th in honor of the attacks at Pearl Harbor, or October 7th in honor of fallen firefighters.
The president is also authorized to order the flag to half-staff in response to tragedies, such as mass shootings or the Challenger tragedy.
Anyone who wishes to can receive notifications for when to fly their flag at half-staff, including nation-wide or state-wide alerts.
There have been times when officials have been confused about their authority with regards to “ordering” the American flag to half-staff. The National Flag Foundation gives the example of the late Attorney General Janet Reno ordering the flag to half-staff on all U.S. Department of Justice buildings after the deaths of several DEA agents. Though it was a well-intentioned gesture, legally Attorney General Reno did not have the authority to give such an order.
“NFF points out these ‘good-faith misunderstandings’ not to criticize or embarrass anyone, but rather to head off a growing trivialization of this memorial salute, and to preserve the dignity and significance of flying the U.S. flag at half-staff. To any readers who may think that NFF is insensitive for raising these breaches of etiquette, please be assured that our motives are pure. We grieve these human loses deeply; however, we believe proper respect for our flag must be maintained – no matter the circumstances. We owe that respect to our living, our dead, and our flag.”
“When Salvador Dalí died, it took months to get all the flagpoles sufficiently melted.”
(Image by xkcd)
One final note: proper etiquette dictates that the flag must not just be raised to half-staff. “The flag should be briskly run up to the top of the staff before being lowered slowly to the half-staff position.”
Forever in peace may she wave.