This Is Why We Started Flying Flags at Half Staff
It's all about the "invisible flag of death."
There’s nothing more solemn than a flag at half-staff. In the United States, we lower Old Glory for the deaths of political figures, as well as on days of national mourning, such as Patriot Day, Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day, and Memorial Day. And it’s not just us. Across the world, countries lower their flags in times of mourning—and have since at least the 17th century.
So where did this centuries-old tradition come from? According to the Washington Post, the practice dates at least as far back as 1612. That year, Englishman James Hall led a sailing expedition to Greenland to look for silver. Unfortunately, the mission was ill-fated, and Hall was killed by the island’s native Inuit people. However, first-person accounts of the incident gave us some of the earliest references to flying a flag at half-staff.
“This day, at night, came our vice-admiral, with our great pinnace at her stern, her flag hanging down, and her ancient [colors] hanging down over her poop, which was a sign of death,” wrote quartermaster John Gatonbe in an account republished in “Danish Arctic Expeditions, 1605 to 1620.”
And there’s a specific reason they chose half-staff, too. “According to one line of scholarly thinking, by lowering the Union Jack, the sailors were making room for the invisible flag of Death,” writes Mental Floss. “This explanation jibes with the British tradition of flying a ‘half-staff’ flag exactly one flag’s width lower than its normal position to underscore that Death’s flag is flapping above it.”
One of the first times Americans flew a flag at half-staff was in honor of George Washington’s death in 1799. In that case, the order came from a Navy Department general. According to crwflags.com, the order said, “The Vessels of the Navy, in our own as in foreign ports be put in mourning for one week, by wearing their Colours half-staff high.”
Today, flags are flown at half-staff on Peace Officers Memorial Day, Patriot Day, Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day, and for the first half of Memorial Day. Additionally, the president has the authority to declare that flags be flown at half-staff whenever a principal public figure dies.
In 1954, Eisenhower issued a proclamation stating how long flags should fly at half-staff. The decree established it should be 30 days for the death of a president or former president and 10 days for the death of a vice president, chief justice, retired chief justice, or the speaker of the House of Representatives. Flags are also to be flown at half-staff from the day of death until the day of internment for all associate justices, secretaries of an executive or military department, former vice presidents, and governors. If a member of Congress dies, flags should be flown at half-staff during the day of death and though the next day.
And the president isn’t the only person allowed to order a half-staffing. Governors are allowed to declare flags in their state be lowered for the death of a present or former government official, or if a member of the military from that state died while on active duty.
When a half-staffing is ordered, all government buildings, offices, public schools, and military bases are required, by federal decree, to follow it… Kinda: There’s no penalty for not flying flags at half-staff. And for more fascinating trivia from the annals of our country’s past, learn the 40 Most Enduring Myths in American History.
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