Why is the Flag at Half-Mast? Learn about the Meaning, Symbolism and Protocol


When we see a flag flying at half-mast, it’s usually an indication that something significant has occurred. Half-masting is a solemn and respectful gesture of mourning, respect or honor shown toward a person or event. It also serves as a visual reminder to the public of the gravity of the occasion. But what exactly does it mean when a flag is flown at half-mast? What are the criteria for half-masting a flag? And how is it done properly? In this post, we will explore the origins, symbolism, protocol and etiquette behind half-masting a flag in different contexts.

What Does it Mean When a Flag is at Half-Mast?

Origins of Half-Masting

The tradition of half-masting a flag has a rich history dating back centuries. It originated in the naval tradition where ships would lower their flags as a sign of respect and mourning for fallen sailors or commanders. This practice was known as “half-staffing” or “half-masting,” depending on the country.

One of the earliest recorded instances of half-masting occurred in 1612 after the death of Henry, Prince of Wales, son of King James I of England. The Royal Navy lowered its flags to half-mast in honor of the prince’s passing. This tradition continued throughout the years and became more widespread during times of war when the loss of life was much greater.

In some cases, half-masting was also used as a symbol of surrender. During battles at sea, if a ship lowered its flag to half-mast, it was a sign that they were surrendering to the enemy.

Over time, the tradition of half-masting spread beyond the navy and was adopted by other branches of the military and eventually by governments worldwide. Today, it is a common display of respect and mourning for national tragedies, state funerals, or the passing of influential figures.

In conclusion, the origins of half-masting can be traced back to the naval tradition of honoring fallen sailors and commanders. It has since become an important symbol of respect and mourning, adopted by different branches of the military and governments around the world.

Symbolism Behind Half-Masting

Symbolism Behind Half-Masting

When a flag is flown at half-mast, it is a universal symbol of mourning, respect, and honor. This powerful gesture is not only a way to pay tribute to those who have passed away, but also to show solidarity with those who mourn.

One of the main reasons for half-masting a flag is to honor the memory of a person who has recently died. When a notable figure passes away, such as a head of state, a military leader, or a public servant, lowering the flag at half-mast is a way to show respect and reverence for their life and legacy. It is also a way to express condolences and sympathy to their family, friends, and colleagues.

However, half-masting a flag is not limited to honoring individuals. It can also be a way to commemorate tragic events that have affected a community, a nation, or even the world. For example, after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, flags were flown at half-mast across the United States as a sign of mourning and unity. Similarly, when a natural disaster strikes or a mass shooting occurs, lowering the flag at half-mast can be a way to acknowledge the loss and pain of those affected.

The symbolism behind half-masting also extends to the military context. In many countries, including the United States, the flag is lowered to half-mast during times of war or conflict to honor those who have died in service to their country. This act of respect and remembrance serves as a reminder of the sacrifices made by soldiers and their families.

Overall, half-masting a flag is a significant gesture that carries deep meaning and symbolism. Whether it is done to honor an individual, a community, or a country, it expresses mourning, respect, and honor in a way that words cannot always convey.

When is the Flag Flown at Half-Mast?

National Tragedies

National Tragedies

In times of national tragedy, one way the country shows its respect and mourning is by flying the flag at half-mast. There are specific criteria for when this protocol is followed, but two of the most significant events that warrant a flag at half-mast are the death of a president and a terrorist attack.

The assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963 marked the first time the US government ordered flags to be flown at half-mast for a president who was not a sitting president. Since then, it has become customary to lower flags to half-mast for former presidents on their day of interment.

Similarly, after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City, the Pentagon, and United Airlines Flight 93, flags were flown at half-mast for 30 days. This decision was made by President George W. Bush as a symbol of the country’s mourning and solidarity with the victims and their families.

It is worth noting that the decision to fly the flag at half-mast is not always automatic, even during national tragedies. In some cases, it may be up to individual state governors or local officials to make the call. For example, after the mass shooting at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida in 2016, Governor Rick Scott ordered flags to be lowered to half-mast statewide, while other states left the decision up to local leaders.

In any case, lowering the flag to half-mast during national tragedies is a powerful gesture of respect and honor. It serves as a reminder of the sacrifices made by those who have served and protected our country, and the resilience of the American people in the face of adversity.

State Mourning

State Mourning

When a nation loses a prominent figure, such as a head of state or high-ranking government official, it is customary to declare a period of state mourning. State mourning is a way for the country to show its respect and honor for the deceased and their contributions to society.

One common practice during state mourning is for the flag to be flown at half-mast as a symbol of mourning. This is done as a sign of respect and commemoration for the individual who has passed away. The death of a dignitary warrants such an honor, showing that their contributions and legacy were recognized by the nation they served.

In addition to flying the flag at half-mast, other forms of tribute may be paid during state mourning periods. For example, the government might hold a memorial service to pay respects and honor the life of the deceased. During this service, key public figures may speak about the individual’s achievements and what they meant to the country.

State mourning can also have an impact on a country’s day-to-day operations. Depending on the period of mourning, some government offices may close or operate on reduced hours out of respect for the deceased. Additionally, public events may be postponed or cancelled as well.

Overall, state mourning is an important tradition that allows a country to come together and pay tribute to those who have dedicated their lives to serving society. It is a time for reflection and remembrance, reminding us all of the importance of selfless service and honoring those who have made significant contributions to their communities.

Local Tributes

Local Tributes

Local tributes are a way to honor and pay respect to community leaders, first responders, and other members of the local community who have passed away. When someone in the community passes away, it can have a profound impact on those around them. Whether it’s a beloved community leader or a first responder who has given their life in service, local tributes provide an opportunity for the community to come together and show their support.

One of the most common ways to honor a local leader or first responder is by lowering the flag to half-mast. This simple gesture serves as a powerful symbol of mourning, solidarity, and respect. In addition to half-masting the flag, communities may also hold vigils, organize memorial services, or create memorials to honor the memory of those who have passed away.

Some communities take things a step further and establish permanent memorials to honor local heroes. For example, the city of New York has the 9/11 Memorial, which pays tribute to the victims of the September 11th terrorist attacks. The memorial features two reflecting pools, each set within the footprints of the Twin Towers, as well as a museum that tells the story of the tragic events of that day.

When it comes to local tributes, it’s important to remember that they serve not only as a way to honor the memory of those who have passed away but also as a way to bring the community together. By coming together to mourn and pay tribute, communities can build a sense of solidarity and support that can help them weather even the toughest of times.

How is the Flag Lowered and Raised During Half-Masting?

Procedures for Raising and Lowering the Flag

Procedures for Raising and Lowering the Flag

Raising and lowering the flag during half-masting is a solemn ritual that requires strict procedures to be followed. The process of raising and lowering the flag is not just about physically hoisting or lowering it; it’s also about paying respect and honoring those who have passed away. Here are some important procedures to follow:


The length of time that a flag should be flown at half-mast is usually determined by the government or organization who has ordered it. Generally, it’s flown from sunrise to sunset on the day of mourning, but it can also be flown for several days. After that, the flag should be raised back to full mast.


When the flag is being raised or lowered, it should always be handled with care and dignity. Two people should hold the flag, one at each end, and it should never touch the ground. To lower the flag, it should be hoisted to the top of the staff first and then slowly and respectfully lowered to half-mast. To raise the flag back to full mast, it should be hoisted to the top first and then lowered down to its normal position.


Timing is crucial when it comes to raising and lowering the flag. In general, the flag should be lowered to half-mast quickly and smoothly. It should not be left halfway between the full-mast and half-mast positions. When raising the flag again, it should be done slowly and with due respect.

For example, in the United States, if the flag is being flown at half-mast to honor a fallen service member, it will be raised back to full mast at noon. This symbolizes the nation’s resolve to rise up and continue to fight for freedom.

In conclusion, the procedures for raising and lowering the flag during half-masting are meant to be respectful and dignified. By following these procedures, we can show honor and respect for those who have passed away.

Dos and Don’ts for Displaying the Half-Mast Flag

Dos and Don’ts for Displaying the Half-Mast Flag

When a flag is flown at half-mast, it is a sign of mourning and respect. It’s important to display the flag correctly during this solemn time, so here are some dos and don’ts to keep in mind:

Do consider the size of the flag

The size of the flag you use should be proportionate to the size of the flagpole. A flag that is too small can be difficult to see, while a flag that is too large can be overwhelming. As a general rule, the length of the flag should be at least one-fourth the height of the pole.

Don’t forget about lighting

If you plan to display the half-mast flag overnight, make sure it is properly illuminated. The flag should be visible even in low light conditions. You can use outdoor floodlights or spotlight fixtures to ensure that the flag remains visible at all times.

Do pay attention to placement

The half-mast flag should be lowered to a position that is halfway between the top of the pole and the bottom of the flag. This placement is symbolic of the sorrow and mourning associated with the occasion. Additionally, make sure the flag doesn’t touch the ground or anything beneath it.

Don’t forget proper folding techniques

When it’s time to take down the half-mast flag, it’s important to fold it correctly. The flag should be folded in a prescriptive manner that honors its symbolism. Make sure the folds are neat and tight, and avoid letting the flag touch the ground during the process.

In conclusion, displaying the half-mast flag is an important way to show respect and honor during times of mourning. By following these dos and don’ts, you can help ensure that the flag is displayed correctly and with appropriate dignity.
In conclusion, the flag at half-mast is an important symbol of mourning, respect, and honor. It is a powerful way to recognize national tragedies, state mourning, and local tributes. Understanding the protocol for displaying the flag at half-mast, including proper positioning, timing, and lighting, is crucial in showing the appropriate level of respect and tribute. By learning about the history, traditions, and symbolism behind half-masting, we can gain a deeper appreciation for this solemn gesture and its significance. Let us continue to show our support and gratitude to those who have sacrificed their lives for our country by displaying the flag at half-mast with honor and reverence.

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