When you drive by an American flag and it is flying at half-staff (or half mast), you know there is a period of mourning in effect, but you might have questions about the details. Why fly flags at half-staff when someone dies? What constitutes a person important enough to have national flags lowered? When did this tradition start?
History of Flying Flags at Half-Mast
Most historians agree that the earliest references to this event date back to 1612 when the captain of the Heart's Ease perished as the British ship was heading to Canada. Upon returning to London, the ship's flag was at half-mast. Scholars believe that the ship's flag was lower the width of one flag to make room for the invisible Death's Flag.
U.S. Flags and Flying Half-Staff
The United States has strict regulations that are in place when it comes to flying national flags at half-staff. For various members of the government, for example, the time frame varies. Upon the death of any president of the United States -- current or former -- the flags fly at half-staff for 30 days. The death of the current chief justice, vice president or speaker of the house means U.S. flagswill fly at half-staff for ten days. Other governmental officials such as former governors, vice presidents and cabinets secretaries have national flags lowered from the day of their deaths until the day they are interred.
Other Events That Prompt a Flag to be Lowered
The President has the power to also order the U.S. flags to be at half-staff when other important figures pass away or when catastrophic events occur. After the death of Pope John Paul II, President George W. Bush ordered flags be lowered until his interment. President Barack Obama directed that all national flags were to be flown at half-staff for the time period of December 5, 2013 until December 9, 2013 upon the death of Nelson Mandela.
A bit of flag trivia for you. Many people use the terms "half-staff" and "half-mast" interchangeable when it comes to talking about the ways flags are flown on a flagpole. In actuality, "half-mast" is only used when naval installations are involved while "half-staff" is used in all other instances.