Where Did the Tradition Begin of Flying the Flag at Half-Staff?

By George Teagarden

After my story about the campuses new flag and it flying at half-staff, I received a request to write a short history of how this tradition began.

There are over-lapping theories on how and when the practice began. The first written information about the flag came as early as the 16th century when the Master of the British ship Hearts Ease was murdered by Eskimos while on an expedition in search of the Northwest Passage. As a gesture of mourning, the flag was flown over the stern of the ship when it returned to London.

Other articles have claimed the tradition began 100 years later, in the 17th century. But many experts observe the tradition probably began with nautical roots in the 14th or 15th century. Tall ships with high masts made it possible to lower the flag to half-mast. Smaller ships could lower the flag one-width down, supposedly to fly an invisible flag of death, which was very prevalent at the time. The space above the flag was also considered to be a “salute” to the departed.

Absent a ship’s mast, flags are flown at half-staff if on land. The flag can be flown at half-staff at the request of a state governor and the president to the United States. The flag is flown from sunrise to sunset on specific days, except on Memorial Day when the flag is flown at half-staff until noon, then raised to full-staff. The first half of the day remembers war dead; the second half honors Veterans who are still alive.

There are strict guidelines for hoisting the flag. It is hoisted to the top first, then lowered to half-staff or half-mast.

I just went to the window and looked at our new flag and staff. I was thankful that it was restored to full-staff, proud and beautiful. For me, it honors those soldiers who have lost their arms or legs and who were injured in battle, but are still alive to tell their story.

Questions? Email George at gteagarden@msbcollege.edu