The United States Flag in Mourning

Jim Bolinger
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The United States Flag in Mourning

September 11th has been designated as Patriot Day by United States Public Law #107-89. This law amended Title 36 of the United States Code (also, known as The Flag Code). State and local governments and the people of the United States have been called upon to observe Patriot Day with appropriate programs and activities. Further, the law requested that individuals observe a moment of silence in memory of the victims. On that day, the flag of the United States should be flown at half-staff in honor of the individuals who lost their lives as a result of the terrorist attacks. One theory on the origin of “half-staff” is that it comes from the military custom of lowering the flag to show submission to an enemy or, at the time of death, submission to the will of God. Current custom indicates that the flag is “in mourning” when it is at half-staff.

When a flag is flown at half-staff, it should first be raised to the top of the pole and then lowered to half-staff. For a flag in a bracket on the front of a house, it is not possible to “half-staff” the flag. Therefore, a tradition of using black ribbons as a sign of mourning can be used. Two black ribbons of suitable length should be attached at the top of the pole. For a flag hung vertically, a ribbon should be affixed at each end of the “top” edge of the flag. These ribbons should never be attached to the flag itself.

It is important to note that when the United States flag is flown at “half-staff”, no other flag can be flown at “full-staff”. It is disrespectful to fly any flag higher than the U.S. Flag.

The tragic events on September 11, 2001 stunned and devastated the world. When terrorists savagely attacked the World Trade Center in New York, the Pentagon in Washington and hijacked a plane that crashed in Pennsylvania, they killed thousands of innocent people and ripped scores of families apart. National Flag Foundation expresses its deepest sadness at this terrible affront to humanity. Our prayers are with the families of the victims.

America stands united and resolved to bring to justice the criminals who waged this war on our nation. Not since the attack on Pearl Harbor has America demonstrated such patriotic spirit.

On the morning of Wednesday, September 12, President George W. Bush ordered the United States Flag flown at half-staff at all public buildings and government offices. A subsequent order called for flags to remain at half-staff until Saturday September 22. Millions of Americans and citizens of other countries observed this period of mourning and displayed their unity with America. This special issue of Flag Facts is dedicated to the memory of those who died. Their memory endures. We will not forget.

What is meant by “Half-Staff or Half-mast” and how did the practice begin?

The term “half-staff” refers to a flag positioned one-half the distance between the top and the bottom of the staff. Half-staffing usually indicates mourning.

The origin of this custom is difficult to trace. Most experts agree that it dates back to the late 16th or the early 17th century. Two theories exist. The first theory derives from the naval custom of lowering the flag to signify submission, in wartime to an opponent or at death, to the will of God. The second theory comes from the ancient Greek and Roman custom of denoting death with a broken column or shaft. A flag at half-staff symbolizes the broken, incomplete column.

How is the Flag properly situated at the half-staff position?

First, for an instant, hoist the flag to the staff’s peak (full-staff) and then lower it to the half-staff position. At dusk, retire the flag by briskly raising it to full-staff and then lowering it ceremoniously.

Who has the authority to order flags flown at half-staff?

Upon the death of principal figures of the United States government or the Governor of a state or territory, U.S. law gives specific authority to the President of the United States to order the flag flown at half-staff as a mark of respect. In the event of the death of a present or former government official of any state or territory, the Governor of that state or territory may also proclaim that the flag be flown at half-staff.

For what duration of time is the flag lowered to half-staff?

The flag is flown at half-staff for 30 days upon the death of the President or a former President of the United States and for 10 days upon the death of the Vice President or the speaker of the House of Representatives. The flag is flown at half-staff from the day of death until interment for a former Vice President, an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, a Governor of a state or territory or a Secretary of executive or military department. It is flown at half-staff on the day of death and the following day form a member of Congress.

Are there specific days on which to lower the flag to half-staff?

By order of Congress, the flag should also be lowered to half-staff on Peace Officers Memorial Day (May 15), Korean War Veterans Day (July 27), and Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day (December7). It is expected that Congress will also memorialize September 11 as a day to display the flag at half-staff. Unlike other days, on Memorial Day the flag should be displayed at half-staff until noon only, then raised to the top of the staff.

Can Private individuals or corporations lower their own U.S. Flags to half-staff in the event of the death of a loved one, an employee or officer?

National Flag Foundation recommends that individuals, institutions, corporations and organizations find other appropriate ways to honor their deceased rather than by lowering their personal United States flags to half-staff. Half-staffing the flag should be a rare and meaningful way to pay respect5 to the dead. We suggest that for local or private situations, other flags, such as corporate or organizational flags, be lowered to represent a state of mourning for that organization.

Are there other acceptable ways to show mourning through the use of the Flag?

For flags that cannot be displayed at half-staff, there is a tradition not mentioned in the U.S. Code that provides for the use of Black Ribbons as a sign of mourning. Two streamers of suitable length made of black crepe or ribbon should be attached at the top of the pole just below the finial, the ornament at the top of the pole. For a flag displayed flat against a wall or hung vertically or horizontally, affix a streamer at each end of the top edge of the flag. Do not, however, fasten the streamers to the flag.

A special veteran’s flag drapes the casket of those who died serving their country. The blue field of the flag is placed at the head of the casket over the left shoulder of the deceased. The flag is removed from the casket, folded in the appropriate manner and delivered to the next of kin just before interment.

When the U.S. flag is at half-staff, it is important to note that one may not fly any other flag such as state, county, city or corporate flag at full-staff. It is disrespectful to fly any flag higher than the U.S. Flag on American soil. The option exists of either flying all flags at half-staff, or retiring all flags except the U.S. Flag and then striking the U.S. Flag to half-staff. National Flag Foundation recommends the latter procedure.