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Why Is the Flag at Half Staff Today?

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A quick guide to what it means, who's being honored, and how to pay tribute yourself.


LATEST HALF-STAFF ALERTS


Saturday, December 1, 2018 through Sunday, December 30, 2018

UNITED STATES | In honor of George H.W. Bush, the 41st President of the United States

Immediately until Sunday, December 30, 2018

MASSACHUSETTS | In honor of Firefighter Christopher Roy of the Worcester Fire Department


When we’re driving our kids to school or stopping at the bank and see it, we know. A flag flying at half-staff means our town, our state, or our nation is sharing a moment of grief. Ever wonder why, or who makes those choices? Here are some of the most common questions people have when they see a flag flying half-staff.

When should a flag fly at half-staff?
According to the VA,  flags are flown at half-staff when the “whole nation is at mourning.” Sometimes, individual states and cities will decide to honor a local or regional loss with a half-staff flag.

The flag should be flown half-staff on Memorial Day in remembrance of deceased service members, but only from dawn until noon. Then, the flag is quickly raised full staff until sunset to honor living military veterans.

According to Jeff Hendricks, Deputy Director of Americanism at the American Legion, the American flag should be flown half-staff on these days, as well:

Peace Officers Memorial Day (May 15), unless that day is also Armed Forces Day (third Saturday in May)
Patriot Day (September 11)
National Fallen Firefighters Memorial Service (traditionally the first Sunday in October).  
Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day (December 7)

Where does the tradition come from?
The origins of this tradition are a little murky. Some journalists point to a 1612 account of the British Heart's Ease. The captain died on a journey to Canada, and the ship was flying its flag at half-mast in his honor when it returned to London.  In the United States, one of the earliest references to a half-staff flag order came after the death of George Washington, when the Navy ordered all their vessels to “wear their colours half mast high.”

What should I do if I can’t lower my flag?
According to the Flag Guys, most home flag sets, such as the kind flown from porches or mounted to a floor indoors, aren’t designed for half-staff use. It’s not written in the flag code, but Jeff Hendricks has an alternative: “An accepted patriotic practice for a display of mourning is to attach a black ribbon or streamer at the top of an American flag.” The ribbon should be flag-length and the same width as a full flag stripe. You can find some handy tips for how to make a memorial ribbon here, but the American Legion also offers one for sale online.

Do I have to do anything special?
Actually, you do. While many might be tempted to simply raise a flag halfway up the pole and stop, or just lower it at the end of the day, there’s more ceremony involved than that. According to the flag code, “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.”

Who decides that a flag should be flown half-staff?
Typically, the President makes this decision for a national remembrance, and state or territorial governors make the decision for a local remembrance. However, federal government agency and department leaders can also order lowered flags on areas they manage, and it’s not uncommon for community leaders, school districts, or companies to order all their flags lowered to honor a local death.

How can I find out why a flag is at half-staff?
You can always bookmark this page to see our daily update. The American Legion offers email notifications of U.S. half-staff days, and you can also find out more at halfstaff.org.  Flagnotify.com and American Flags Express offer updates on state-level flag lowerings, and you can always check with your governor’s office.


ALSO READ: 

• What to Do When a Veteran Dies: Handling the details of a military death can be confusing. Our guide on first steps and important things to know can help.
• The Meaning Behind Military Funerals: Learn more about the events in these time-honored traditions.
• How to Choose Funeral Flowers: Our guide to pick floral gifts that reflect your feelings and the personality of someone you've lost.
• The Meaning of FlowersLearn more about the rich traditions and symbolism of flowers.
• How to Create a Veteran’s Memorial Garden: Create a lasting tribute to your veteran.