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Why are Flags at Half-mast Today?

It's common to fly the flag at half-mast when the nation is mourning. But other than then, most people don’t know any occasions that call for half-mast raising. Here’s an overview.

In the early days, there were no regulations for flying the flag at half-staff. As a result, states followed many conflicting policies. This confusion caused the late President Dwight Eisenhower to proclaim the best time to fly the flag at half-mast.

What is flying a flag at half-mast?

Flying a flag at half-mast means it remains below the normal peak, usually at one-half of the distance between the top and the bottom of the staff. It’s a symbol of respect, distress, mourning, and in some cases, a salute.

The flag is first hoisted to the peak for an instant, lowered to the half-staff position, then raised to the peak before it’s lowered at the end of the day. In the United States, the President issues an executive order to fly the flag at half-mast during special occasions like the death of principal figures in the government.

Once the President issues the order, all offices, government buildings, military bases, and public schools must fly flags as such. Governors must also authorize state flags in their jurisdictions to fly them at half-mast. The governor’s order is restricted to their state, not the entire country. Here are the occasions when the U.S. President requires states to fly flags at half-mast:

  1. After the death of a president or former president

The United States flag must be flown at half-staff for 30 days upon the death of the President or a former President. Military facilities, embassies, naval vessels, legations, and other facilities must follow the directive.

  1. Death of principal figures

The President also requires the flag to be flown at half-staff upon the death of principal figures like:

  • The Vice President
  • The Speaker of the House of Representatives
  • The Governor
  • The Chief Justice, or Retired Chief Justice until interment

The flag is flown at half-mast for ten days from the day of their death, not 30 days as in honor of the President’s death. Other government officials like the Secretary of an executive or a military department, Governor of a State, and Associate Justice of the Supreme Court are also honored this way. The difference is that the flag is flown at half-staff on the day of their death until interment.

  1. Other appropriate figures

Other officials honored in a similar way include:

  • A Member of Congress
  • A Territorial Delegate
  • The U.S. Senator
  • The Resident Commissioner from the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico

For these officials, the flag is raised at half-mast for two days only:

  • On the day of their death
  • The following day
  1. Crucial days when flags are raised at half-mast

Flags are also raised half-staff on Memorial Day to honor soldiers who have lost their lives when serving the country. Memorial Day was declared after the Civil War to commemorate the fallen Union soldiers. After some time, the celebration included those who served in all wars and all the military branches.

Traditionally, Memorial Day was celebrated on 30th May, but in 1968, it was changed to the last Monday of May. During the ceremony the flag is raised briskly to the peak and remains in this position for a short while before it’s lowered half-position until noon.  

It’s then hoisted to the peak again until sunset when it’s lowered to salute the living veterans. The premise for leaving it flying at half-mast until noon is to commemorate the nation’s dead soldiers. Observing proper etiquette is important during this celebration. When the flag is raised:

  • Non-military spectators must face the flag, stand at attention, and place their hands over the chest’s left part.
  • Military officers in uniform must give a salute
  • Non-citizens must stand at attention
  • Spectators wearing hats must remove them using their right hands and hold them at their left shoulder with the palm resting on their heart

Now you know when flags are raised at half-mast. Keep in mind, unless it’s a special occasion (e.g., Memorial Day), the President must issue a directive to raise the flags as such.

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