When should flags fly at half-staff?

Driving around on a given day, you may come across a flag that is flying at half-staff. Believe it or not, there actually is a method and reasoning behind when flags are supposed to fly at half-staff.

Flying a flag at half-staff means that the flag is flying halfway on the flagpole – exactly half way between the top and bottom of the flagpole – and it not only symbolizes grief and mourning, but also respect.

There is a proper procedure to flying the flag at half-staff.  According to United States Code, Title 4, Chapter 1, Section 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.”

Flags fly in instances of national distress, remembrance and recognition of various holidays, or following the death of certain governmental officials. Additionally, according to the U.S. Flag Code, the President, state governors and the Mayor of Washington, D.C. have the power to order flags to fly at half-staff. The power to order flags at half-staff is considered an honor and is only kept as a responsibility of those in charge.

The dates that are the most recognizable for flying flags at half-staff are:

  • May 15th– known as Peace Officer’s Memorial Day, flags fly at half-staff from sunrise to sunset
  • Memorial Day – this day always falls on the last Monday of the month of May; flags fly at half-staff from sunrise to noontime
  • September 11th – known as Patriot Day, flags fly at half-staff from sunrise to sunset
  • December 7th – known as National Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day, flags fly at half-staff from sunrise to sunset

Following the death of certain government officials, flags are ordered to fly at half-staff:

  • Following the death of the President or a former President for 30 days
  • Following the death of the Vice President, the Chief Justice, or the Speaker of the House of Representatives for 10 days
  • Following the death 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 from the day of death until interment
  • Following the death of a Member of Congress for the day of death and the following day

Why do we fly our flags at half-staff?

While there is not a definite record or formality of when flags were first flown at half-staff, the oldest commonly accepted reference to a half-staff flag dates back to 1612. The captain of the British ship Heart’s Ease died while searching for the Northwest Passage between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Crewmembers flew the ship’s flags at half-staff to mourn the passing of their captain, signifying it as a practice for grieving.

It is proper etiquette to raise the flag quickly to the top of the flagpole before lowering to half-staff; it symbolizes the salute for remembrance or the deceased.

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39 Replies to “When should flags fly at half-staff?

  1. To whom it may concern,

    I work at one of the hospital chains in the Dayton, Ohio area.
    Because of the tragedy at Newtown, Conn. on December 14, our flag has been flown at half staff. My question is as follows. How long should we fly the flag at half staff? I believe it is for thirty days. If this is not the case, can you let me know so I can pass it on to the administartive staff? Thank you for your assistance in this matter.

    Sincerely,

    Gene Metter

    1. It can be a day, a week, 10 days, or even 30 days depending upon who it is for and what the President or Governor(s) decide. Due to the magnitude of this tragedy your correct, it is like for thirty days. Our thoughts and prayers are with all those who lost their lives and their loved ones.

      May the rest in peace.

    2. There are very clear rules defined on this. Normally speaking the only time a flag should be flown at half staff for 30 days is following the death a President, former or sitting. 10 days for other ranking officials, or in some cases the day of their death and one day after, or from the day of their death until internment. It depends on their rank and duties. In the case of Newtown, as horrible as the event was, technically speaking does not meet the formal criteria as defined by the U.S. Flag Code. But if so chosen to fly the flag at half staff, like Patriot Day in memory of 9-11 and Pearl Harbor Day, Dec 7th, the flag should be flown at half staff for only one day on the anniversary day of the event.

  2. when the governor of a state directs that state buildings fly their flags at half staff as in the “Washington Navy Yard shooting”, should private residents also fly there flags at half staff

  3. Will U S Flags be required to fly at half staff for retired U.S. Speaker of the House Tom Foley who died Friday, October 18th at the age of 84. He was the speaker from 1989 to January 1995.

  4. Dear CVS Flags,
    “Flying a flag at half-staff means that the flag is raised only halfway” is an incorrect statement and an incorrect procedure. The US Flag is NEVER raised to half staff. It is only LOWERED to half staff.

    United States Code, Title 4, Chapter 1, Section 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.”

    1. Matthew,

      Thank you for pointing out the important distinction with proper half-staff flag etiquette. We made sure to edit that in our blog post for correct future reference. Your insight and expertise is GREATLY appreciated!

      Sincerely,
      CVS Flags

  5. A member of our Volunteer Fire Department died and the tradition has been that the department lowers their flag to half staff and it remained there until the day of burial. This is ruled by the Chief of the department. If the days that the flag is at half staff falls in between July 4th, must the flag be raised at noon on that day?

    1. We are sorry to hear about your local Fire Department Volunteer passing away. Thank you for sharing proper half-staff procedures in such a matter. Our thoughts and prayers are with you and your community as your mourn the loss of one of your own.

  6. I really don’t want to post this, but I will since I want to ask a question. Why is Memorial Day the only day in which the flag is flown at half-staff until noon and then raised to the top? I know why it is done…”honor the dead” until noon and the raise it to the top because the “nation lives” (1906 Flag code)?. However, I don’t see any difference between Memorial Day and National Peace Officers Day, Pearl Harbor Day and Patriots’ Day (the latter three have a full day at half-staff). We are honoring the dead but the nation lived on after each of those events! Oh, I could go on about the number of days the flag flies at half-staff for the Presidents, other government officials and other national incidents…but the nation lives and they get multiple days but the military…half a day! Heck, we didn’t even have an official Federal Memorial Day until 1971. I feel like we are slighting our military who died in service to their country over some 1906 and before flag code. You can combine all the people who died at Pearl Harbor, who have probably died in police work and on September 11th and not come close to the number of people who have died in military service. I have written to the Department of Veteran Services about this but it will fall on deaf ears and I am not asking you to champion this. I just don’t understand why Memorial Day should be less than the other days. I fly a flag every day. On Memorial Day, I have to plan to be home at 12 noon to bring my flag to full staff. I’ve seen plenty for people not fly their flags on Memorial Day because it is so much hassle. What a pity!

  7. The flag is lowered to half staff way too often, especially in the past 6-8 years. I am terribly sorry about the tragedy in Paris and I hope that justice is served but the flag should not be lowered to half staff in these types of incidents.

    This procedure is meant to be an acknowledgment of those that have proudly served the United States. We cannot continue to “water down” the significance of the honor or, like so many of our great American traditions, the symbol will become meaningless.

    Again, I am respectful and heartbroken for the French families that lost loved ones but none of them died in service to our country or after having held federal elective office in the US.

    1. I strongly agree. I am in responsible for our flags here in the senior retirement community where I live. I often find myself having to explain why the flag isn’t at half mast for their favorite baseball player or movie star. I do not intend to be disrespectful to the loss of any life. The loss of any life is a tragedy but if the flag Is lowered on an almost weekly basis, the significance of the gesture will be lost.

  8. With the passing of Justice Scalia the President has ordered flags at half staff at the White House and all “Public” and Military facilities…………….In that a “Bank” is Private and not public how should this order be interpreted??……..Should a bank fly at half mast in honor of Justice Scalia??

    1. As a company flying your flag publicly, we recommend flying your flag at half staff, especially if you bring it to half staff for other flag holidays such as Memorial Day and other holidays.

  9. My father (WW2), ALWAYS drilled it into us that “half mast” was all the way to the top then down one flag width. So, he didn’t read that law…. or because he was a British?
    Thanks

  10. I found this blog because I, too, was thinking that we fly the flag at half staff way too often. Muhammad Ali was a great sports figure and philanthropist; and although I have great respect for Mr. Ali, I thought it may have been inappropriate when the American Flag was ordered to fly at half staff here in Louisville, Ky (perhaps the entire state). This seems especially inappropriate considering Ali’s refusal to serve in the military.

  11. Could you please let me know when a private school should lower their flag to half mast? I feel like our school should definitely be doing this today and beyond, but there seems to be some confusion about what a public school should do v a private one. Thank you!

    1. Based on the information below we can find no reason a private school would not lower the flag to half staff.
      FLYING THE FLAG AT HALF-STAFF: The pertinent section of the Flag Code says, “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.

  12. Today we learn that an Alabama county commissioner refused President Obama’s order to lower the flag to half-staff. The commissioner said the President does not have the authority.
    Who is correct? What is the reference for your answer?

    1. I believe that Pres can order half staff….I know of no penalty if someone chooses not to. It is flag code or Etiquette…it is not law.

      § 10. Modification of rules and customs by President

      Any rule or custom pertaining to the display of the flag of the United States of America, set forth herein, may be altered, modified, or repealed, or additional rules with respect thereto may be prescribed, by the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces of the United States, whenever he deems it to be appropriate or desirable; and any such alteration or additional rule shall be set forth in a proclamation.

      Executive Order No. 10834 issued by President Dwight D. Eisenhower on August 24, 1959, amended the provisions of Title 4, U.S.C., Chapter 1 and established the 50 star Flag as the official Flag of the United States, effective on July 4, 1960.

      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.

  13. Is there a web page listing all of the Presidential half-staff proclamations throughout history? If so, please post the URL of the web page. I would like to know who started the practice of lowering the flag every time there is any kind of tragic event in the world. As a result of this increased frequency, the sight of the flag flying at half staff has lost a lot of its impact.

  14. Many years ago I learned that for half staff or half mast, the flag was raised to the top of the mast then lowered to 1/3 form the top. When did this change?

    1. 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.

      The provisions of the Flag Code on flying the flag at half-staff are, like all the Code’s provisions, a guide only. They do not apply, as a matter of law, to the display of the flag at half-staff by private individuals and organizations. No federal restrictions or court decisions are known that limit such an individual’s lowering his own flag or that make such display alone a form of desecration.

  15. ‘Half mast’ and ‘half staff’ are misnomers. The flag should be raised to the top of the mast (sea) or staff (land), then lowered by the height of the flag. So a 3′ flag will be lowered 3′ from the top. In the UK, ‘half mast’ is used officially for both land and sea.

  16. U.S. flags DEFINITELY should NOT be flown at half-staff in honour of Shimon Peres’s death, as Obama has just ordered them to be!

  17. My question concerns State flags. If I only fly a state flag, should I follow the American flag requirements to fly said state flag at half staff

  18. Terrible Herbst flys a very large US flag. They had the US flag at half staff thru Nov 11 Veterans Day. I told them the flag should have been raised sunset Nov 9. as the president’s proclamation directed.

    I asked the store mgr why the flag was at half staff. She said it was corporate decision to do so.

    Follow up with TH corporate confirmed it was their decision to keep their flag at half staff despite our government proclamation dates.

    Question is is it flag etiquette for them to do so ?

  19. Curious, can we fly a University’s flag at half staff when one of our board of trustees passes away? Just not the american flag, correct?

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