American Flag Facts: How and Why is the Flag Flown at Half-Staff?

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American Flag

Basic information about flying an American flag at half staff, including who can order flags to be flown at half staff, how long, and proper technique.

Flying the United States flag at half-staff is a sign of national and/or local mourning and is a way to honor the memory of important leaders and others who have died. Discover who issued the proclamation dictating specific times when the American flag should be flown at half-staff, who has the authority to proclaim that flags should be lowered to half-staff, and how long flags should be flown at the lowered position.

Who Standardized Flying the U.S. Flag at Half-staff?

President Dwight Eisenhower proclaimed standards for flying the American flag at half-staff on March 1, 1954. Prior to this date, there were no official rules for flying the flag at half-staff, which led to policies that differed from area to area. Readers may also wish to learn more about the proper display of the American flag.

When placing the United States flag into the half-staff position, the flag should be raised quickly to the top of the pole first and then slowly lowered to the position in which it flies halfway between the top and bottom of the pole. When lowering the flag to be taken off the pole, it should first be raised briskly to the top of the pole and then slowly lowered to waiting arms and then properly folded.

Only certain officials may proclaim that the American flag should be lowered to half-staff, including:

  • The President of the United States (national remembrance)
  • Governor of a state or territory (local remembrance)
  • Heads of federal departments and federal agencies (related jurisdiction, including federal buildings, grounds, and/or naval vessels)

When is the American Flag Flown at Half-Staff?

The U.S. flag may be ordered to be flown at half-staff throughout the nation to commemorate the death of:

  • Certain leaders
  • Officials or former officials
  • Foreign dignitaries
  • After certain tragic events

In general, the flag is flown at half-staff at all federal buildings, grounds, and naval vessels during times of national mourning. More local displays of the flag at half-staff would generally include all federal buildings and grounds within a state, territory, commonwealth, or possession.

How Long is the United States Flag Flown at Half-Staff?

The length of time that the American flag is flown at half-staff varies according to the reason for the half-staff display.

Each year on Memorial Day, the American flag is flown at half-staff from sunrise until noon, at which time it is raised to the top of the pole to remain until sunset. This is done in order to remember the nation’s heroes who have died in battle.

The flag is flown at half-staff from dawn or time of death to sunset for the following amounts of time:

  • 30 days after the death of a president or former president
  • 10 days after the death of a vice president, chief justice or retired chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, or speaker of the House of Representatives
  • From the day of death until internment for an associate justice of the Supreme Court; Cabinet member; former vice president; Senate president pro tempore, majority leader, or minority leader; House of Representatives majority leader or minority leader; governor of a state, territory, or possession
  • On the day of death and the day after death for a U.S. senator, representative, territorial delegate, or resident commissioner of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico

Why Fly the American Flag at Half-Staff?

As a sign of respect and public mourning, the President, governor, or the head of a federal department or federal agency may issue a proclamation to lower the flags to half-staff within that official’s related jurisdiction. The time that the flag is flown at half-staff varies according to the title of the official who died. Flags throughout the nation are flown at half-staff until noon on Memorial Day each year to honor those who died while serving the country.

Sources:

  1. U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs article “Flying the American Flag at Half Staff”
  2. U.S. Flag article “Flag Etiquette: Half Staff Displays”