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The tradition of flying the flag at half-mast began in the 17th century, perhaps to allow "the invisible flag of death" to fly at the top of the mast—which signified death's presence, power, and prominence. In some countries, for example the UK, and especially in military contexts, a "half-mast" flag is still flown exactly one flag's height down from its normal position, and no lower, to allow for this flag of death. This was the original flag etiquette. It is now standard, especially outside the UK, to fly the flag at halfway down the mast regardless of the size of the flag or hoist. (For modern UK practice see below.)
When hoisting a flag that is to be displayed at half-mast, it should be hoisted to the finial for an instant, then lowered to half-mast. Likewise when it is lowered at the end of the day, it is to be hoisted to the finial for an instant, and then lowered.
In the US, the term "half-mast" is commonly used colloquially to refer to half-staff, although US law and military tradition indicate that "half-mast" is generally reserved to usage aboard a ship, where flags are typically flown from masts. Not all English-speaking nations observe this distinction.
- On the death of the Sovereign – from the time of announcement of the death up to and including the funeral. On the day the accession of the new Sovereign is proclaimed, it is customary to raise the flag to the peak from 11 a.m.
- On the death of a member of a royal family.
- On the death of the Governor-General or a former Governor-General.
- On the death of a distinguished Australian citizen. Flags in any locality may be flown at half-mast on the death of a notable local citizen or on the day, or part of the day, of their funeral. Recent examples include the death of naturalist Steve Irwin, actor Heath Ledger and esteemed international opera singer Dame Joan Sutherland.
- On the death of the head of state of another country with which Australia has diplomatic relations – the flag would be flown on the day of the funeral.
- On ANZAC day the flag is flown half-mast until noon.
- On Remembrance Day flags are flown at peak till 10:30 am, at half-staff from 10:30am to 11:03am, then at peak the remainder of the day.
- In the days immediately following the Black Saturday bushfires, many flags of all types were flown at half-mast in spontaneous acknowledgement of the enormous loss of life.
- On the 22nd February 2009, The Hon Kevin Rudd MP, Prime Minister of Australia, announced that from this time forth The Australian Flag would be flown at half-mast on the 7th of February, in remembrance of the 2009 Victorian bushfire victims.
The term half-mast is the only term used in Canada. The decision to fly the flag at half-mast on federal buildings rests with the Department of Canadian Heritage. Nowhere in that department's protocol is the term "half-staff" used. The correct term in Canada is always half-mast, as per the Rules For Half-masting the National Flag of Canada. Federally, the national flag of Canada is flown at half-mast to mark the following occasions:
|Occasion or date||Protocol or significance|
|The death of the sovereign||From the time of notification of death until sunset on the day of the funeral or memorial service, but the flag is flown at full-mast on the day on which the accession of the new monarch is proclaimed|
|The death of a Governor General or Prime Minister who dies while in office||From the time of notification of death until sunset on the day of the funeral or memorial service|
|The death of any member of the Royal Family, a former Governor General, the sitting Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, sitting Ministers of the Crown, or a former Prime Minister||From the time of notification of death until sunset on the day of the funeral or, if there is to be a memorial service, from the time of notification of death until sunset the following day and from sunrise to sunset on the day of the service|
|The death of a police officer in the line of duty.||The flag could be flown at half-mast from a couple of days to weeks, depending on the ranking of the officer.|
|April 28 of each year||Marking the Day of Mourning for People Killed or Injured in the Workplace (coinciding with World Day for Safety and Health at Work)|
|June 23 of each year||Marking the National Day of Remembrance for Victims of Terrorism|
|Last Sunday in September of each year||Marking Police Officer's National Memorial Day|
|November 11 of each year||Marking Remembrance Day|
|December 6 of each year||Marking the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women|
|April 9 of each year||Marking Vimy Ridge Day|
|Varies||The annual memorial service on Parliament Hill to remember deceased parliamentarians|
On occasion discretion can dictate the flying of the national flag at half-mast, not only on the Peace Tower, but on all federal facilities. Some examples include September 11, 2001, September 11, 2002, the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, the 2005 Mayerthorpe Incident, the death of Pope John Paul II, the 2005 London bombings, the death of Smokey Smith, the state funerals of former U.S. presidents Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford, and the death of Jack Layton
There are, however, exceptions to the rules of half-masting in Canada: if Victoria Day or Canada Day fall during a period of half-masting, the flags are to be returned to full-mast for the duration of the day. The national flag on the Peace Tower is also hoisted to full mast if a foreign head of state or head of government is visiting the parliament. These exemptions, though, do not apply to the period of mourning for the death of a Canadian monarch. The Royal Standard of Canada also never flies at half-mast, as it is considered representative of the sovereign, who ascends to the throne automatically upon the death of his or her predecessor. Each province can make its own determination of when to fly the flag at half-mast when provincial leaders or honoured citizens pass away.
To raise a flag in this position, the flag must be flown to the top of the pole first, then brought down halfway before the flag is secured for flying. When such mourning occurs, all flags should be flown at that position or not be flown at all, with the exception of flags permanently attached to poles.
A controversy surfaced in April, 2006, when the newly appointed Conservative government discontinued the practice, initiated by the previous Liberal government following the Tarnak Farm incident, of flying the flag at half-mast on all government buildings whenever a Canadian soldier was killed in action in Afghanistan. The issue divided veterans' groups and military families, some of whom supported the return to the original tradition of using Remembrance Day to honour all soldiers killed in action, while others felt it was an appropriate way to honour the fallen and to remind the population of the costs of war. In spite of the federal government's policy, local authorities have often decided to fly the flag at half-mast to honour fallen soldiers who were from their jurisdiction, including Toronto and Saskatchewan.
On April 2, 2008, the House of Commons voted in favour of a motion calling on the government to reinstate the former policy regarding the half-masting of the flag on federal buildings. The motion, however, was not binding and the Cabinet refused to recommend any revision in policy to the Governor General. At the same time, a federal advisory committee tabled its report on the protocol of flying the national flag at half-mast, recommending that the Peace Tower flag remain at full height on days such as the Police Officers National Memorial Day and the National Day or Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women, stating that the flag should only be half-masted on Remembrance Day. At last report, the committee's findings had been forwarded to the House of Commons all-party heritage committee for further study.
Public Works and Government Services Canada: Ceremonial Procedures
Department of Canadian Heritage: Rules for Flying the Flag
Department of Canadian Heritage: Rules for Half-masting the National Flag of Canada
People's Republic of China
The National Flag Law provides for a number of situations on which the flag should be flown at half-mast, and authorizes the State Council to make such executive orders:
- on the death of the President, Chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress, Premier, Chairman of the Central Military Commission, Chairman of the People's Political Consultative Conference, and those who have made major contributions to the People's Republic of China, or to world peace or advancement of the mankind.
- when major disasters happen
- Example: The flag was flown at halfmast from May 19 to May 21, 2008, the three national mourning days for the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.
Similar rules as in China apply for Hong Kong. See Flag of Hong Kong for details.
- The HKSAR flag was flown at half-mast on August 24–26, 2010, for the fatalities of the Hong Thai Travel tourists in the 2010 Manila hostage crisis.
- The national flag of the PRC was also flown at half-mast on August 26 in Hong Kong.
- The HKSAR flag was flown at half-mast on October 4–6, 2012, for the Lamma Ferry Accident victims. The accident happened on October 1, 2012 which 39 died.
Prior to the transfer of sovereignty in 1997, the rules of the half-mast were from the British.
The German flag, the flags of its federal states, etc. are flown at half-staff on:
- January 27, Day of Remembrance for the Victims of National Socialism
- National Day of Mourning (33rd Sunday of Ordinary Time)
The flag of India is flown at halfmast for the death of the President, Vice-President and Prime Minister all over India. For the Speaker of the Lok Sabha and the Chief Justice of The Supreme Court of India, it is flown in Delhi and for a Union Cabinet Minister it is flown in Delhi and the state capitals, from where he/she came. For Minister of State, it is flown only in Delhi. For a Governor, Lt. Governor and Chief Minister of a state or union territory it is flown in the concerned state.
If the intimation of the death of any dignitary is received in the afternoon, the flag shall be flown at halfmast on the following day also at the place or places indicated above, provided the funeral has not taken place before sunrise on that day. On the day of the funeral of a dignitary mentioned above, the flag shall be flown at half-staff at the place of the funeral.
In the event of a halfmast day coinciding with the Republic Day, Independence Day, Mahatma Gandhi's birthday, National Week (6 to 13 April), any other particular day of national rejoicing as may be specified by the Government of India or in the case of a state, on the anniversary of formation of that state, flags are not permitted to be flown at halfmast except over the building where the body of the deceased is lying until it has been removed and that flag shall be raised to the full mast position after the body has been removed.
Observances of State mourning on the death of foreign dignitaries are governed by special instructions issued from the Ministry of Home Affairs (Home Ministry) in individual cases. However, in the event of death of either the Head of the State or Head of the Government of a foreign country, the Indian Mission accredited to that country may fly the national flag on the above mentioned days.
The flag of Ireland is frequently flown at half-mast on the death of a national or international figure (i.e. former and current Presidents or Taoiseach) on all prominent government buildings equipped with a flag pole. The death of a prominent local figure can also be marked locally by the flag being flown at half-mast. When the national flag is flown at half-mast, no other flag should be half-masted.
- On Yom HaShoah, or the Holocaust Remembrance Day.
- On Yom Hazikaron, or Fallen Soldiers and Victims of Terrorism Remembrance Day.
- On other national days of mourning.
The flag of Indonesia is or has been flown half mast during several occasions:
- on November 10 to remember the fallen heroes of the 1945 Battle of Surabaya during the Indonesian National Revolution,
- following the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami in Aceh,
- following the death of a former president, for example: On the following week after the death of Sukarno, Suharto, and Abdurrahman Wahid,
- on other national days of mourning.
During the era of President Suharto, half-mast Indonesian Flag has been administered in remembrance of the 1965 30 September Movement. However, after the falling of Suharto, this has not been enforced, mainly due to the controversies behind the movement.
The flag of Japan is flown at halfmast upon the death of the Emperor of Japan, other members of the Imperial Family, or a current or former Prime Minister, and also following national disasters such as the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami. In addition to the tradition of halfmast, the national flag topped by black cloth may be flown to designate mourning. See the flag of Japan for more.
Jalur Gemilang is flown at halfmast all over the country:
- on the death of the Supreme King, for 7 days from the day of announcement. The states' flag also flown at half-mast also for 7 days, while the national and state royal standard flown at half-mast from the day of the announcement until the day of the coronation of the new ruler;
- on the death of the Supreme Queen, for 7 days from the day of announcement. Only the states' flag flown at half-mast with Malaysian flag for 7 days;
- on the death of the Rulers and the Heads of State, from the day of announcement until the day of the funeral. Only the Ruler's state flag is flown for 7 days, effective from the day of announcement, while his royal standard flown at half-mast from the day of announcement until the day of the coronation of the new ruler;
- on the death of the Prime Minister or his actor of the post, for 3 days from the day of announcement; or
- when the Prime Minister's Department ordered to flown the Malaysian flag at half-mast for some days.
The flag of the Netherlands is nationally flown at halfmast on remembrance day of the dead (May 4th). After the formal 2-minutes of silence at 8 p.m., the flag used to be hoisted upon the playing of the National Anthem. Since 2001, it is allowed to leave the flag at half-staff, even after the two minutes of silence. The flag is also flown half-staff at the death of a member of the royal family.
- Monarch of New Zealand from the day of the announcement of their death up to and including the day of the funeral. But it is flown at full-mast on Proclamation Day, the day when the new sovereign is announced.
- Current and former Governors-General and Prime Ministers of New Zealand on the day of the announcement of their death and the day of their funerals.
- Other members of the New Zealand Royal Family on the day of their funeral subject to a special command from the Queen or Governor-General.
- Commonwealth of Nations Governors-General, Commonwealth Prime Ministers in office, Foreign and Commonwealth Heads of State on the day of the funeral.
In addition, it can also be flown at half-mast at the request of the Minister for Arts, Culture and Heritage. Examples of this are for the deaths of prominent New Zealanders (e.g. Sir Edmund Hillary and Te Arikinui Dame Te Atairangikaahu, the Maori Queen), and for national tragedies (e.g. the Pike River Mine disaster)
According to the Ministry of Culture and Heritage, the position is always referred to as Half Mast. The flag should be at least its own height from the top of the flagpole, though the actual position will depend on the size of the flag and the length of the flagpole.
The flag of Pakistan is flown half mast on following days.
- On April 21, anniversary of the death of the National Poet, Allama Muhammad Iqbal (1938)
- On September 11, anniversary of the death of the Father of the Nation Muhammad Ali Jinnah (1948)
- On October 16, anniversary of the death of the first Prime Minister, Liaquat Ali Khan (1952)
Any other day notified by the Government. For example on the death of King Fahad bin Abdul Aziz flag was flown at half mast for seven days; and more recently, upon the Assassination of Benazir Bhutto, the flag has been ordered flown at half mast for three days.
The flag may be flown at half-mast as a sign of mourning. Upon the official announcement of the death of the President or a former President, the flag should be flown at half-mast for ten days. The flag should be flown at half-mast for seven days following the death of the Vice President, the Chief Justice, the President of the Senate or the Speaker of the House of Representatives.
The flag may also be required to fly at half-mast upon the death of other persons to be determined by the National Historical Institute, for a period less than seven days. The flag shall be flown at half-mast on all the buildings and places where the decedent was holding office, on the day of death until the day of interment of an incumbent member of the Supreme Court, the Cabinet, the Senate or the House of Representatives, and such other persons as may be determined by the National Historical Institute. Such other people determined by the National Historical Institute have included Pope John Paul II, former U.S. President Ronald Reagan.
When flown at half-mast, the flag should be first hoisted to the peak for a moment then lowered to the half-mast position. It should be raised to the peak again before it is lowered for the day.
The flag may also be used to cover the caskets of the dead of the military, veterans of previous wars, national artists, and outstanding civilians as determined by the local government. In such cases, the flag must be placed such that the white triangle is at the head and the blue portion covers the right side of the casket. The flag should not be lowered to the grave or allowed to touch the ground, but should be solemnly folded and handed to the heirs of the deceased.
The Flag of the Russian Federation is flown at half-mast and (or) topped by black ribbon:
- on June 22 as a reminder of the German invasion of the USSR in 1941;
- on the death of a current or former President of Russia;
- on disasters causing more than 100 killed - across all the country upon Presidential proclamation;
- on disasters causing more than 10 killed - in a suffering region upon proclamation of a Governor;
- on other tragic occasions. For example, the national mourning was proclaimed and all the state flags were flown at half-mast after the Polish President's plane crash near Smolensk, Russia despite the number of casualties was slightly less than 100.
All the regional flags and the departmental ensigns are flown at half-mast on national or regional mourning days as well as the national flag. Firms and non-governmental organizations, embassies and representatives of international organizations often join a mourning, too. The national or regional mourning usually lasts for one day.
The flag of Saudi Arabia is one of two flags in the world that are never flown at half-mast because it shows the shahadah. The other flag is the Flag of Somaliland. Since both bear the concept of oneness of God, the flag is never lowered to half-mast even as a sign of mourning, despite the fact that many other Muslim countries observe the official mourning of deceased Saudi kings by lowering their own national flags.
The national flag is flown at halfmast on February 28 to mark the anniversary of the 228 Incident.
The Thai national flag was flown at half-mast from January 2 to January 15, 2008 on the death of Princess Galyani Vadhana, the Princess of Naradhiwas.
The Turkish flag is flown at half-mast all over the country every 10 November, between 09:05 and the sunset, in memory of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who died on November 10, 1938 at five past nine in the morning. At other times, the government may issue an order for the national flag to be flown at half-mast upon the death of principal figures of the Turkish political life as a mark of respect to their memory (such as Turgut Özal). When such an order is issued, all government buildings, offices, public schools and military bases are to fly their flags at half-mast. To show the sympathy of Turkish people to a foreign leader, flags are also flown at half-mast by governmental order (such as after the deaths of Yasser Arafat or Pope John Paul II).
The Royal Standard, the flag of the British monarch, is never flown at half-mast, because there is always a living monarch: the throne passes immediately to the successor.
There was some controversy in the United Kingdom in 1997 following the death of Diana, Princess of Wales that no flag was flying at half-mast at Buckingham Palace. Until 1997, the only flag to fly from Buckingham Palace was the Royal Standard, the official flag of the reigning British sovereign, which would only fly when the sovereign was in residence at the Palace (or, exceptionally, after the death of the sovereign, the flag of the next senior member of the Royal Family would be raised, if the new sovereign were not present); otherwise, no flag would fly.
In response to public outcry  that the palace was not flying a flag at half mast, Queen Elizabeth II ordered a break with protocol, replacing the Royal Standard with the Union Flag at half-mast as soon as The Queen left the Palace to attend the Princess's funeral at Westminster Abbey. The Royal Standard was again flown (at full hoist) on her return to the Palace. Since then, the Union Flag flies from the Palace when the Queen is not in residence, and has flown at half mast upon the deaths of members of the Royal Family, such as Princess Margaret and the Queen Mother in 2002 and other times of national mourning such as following the terrorist bombings in London on 7 July 2005.
In the UK, the correct way to fly the flag at half mast is two-thirds between the top and bottom of the flagstaff, with at least the width of the flag between the top of the flag and the top of the pole according to the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, which decides the flying, on command of the Sovereign. The flag may be flown on a government building at half mast on the following days:
- From the announcement of the death up to the funeral of the Sovereign, except on Proclamation Day when flags are hoisted to full staff, from 11am until sunset.
- The funerals of members of the royal family, upon command of the Sovereign.
- The funerals of foreign rulers, upon command of the Sovereign.
- The funerals of prime ministers and ex-prime ministers of the UK, upon command of the Sovereign.
- Other occasions, by special command of the Sovereign.
According to the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, the correct term is Half Mast.(See Flying Flags in the United Kingdom: a Guide to Britain's Flag Protocol)
If a flag flying day coincides with a half-mast flag flying day (including the death of a royal), the flag is flown at full mast unless a specific command is received from the Sovereign.
If more than one flag is flown on a half mast day, they must be all be flown at half mast, or not at all. The flag of a foreign nation must never be flown at half mast on UK soil unless that country has declared mourning.
At the United Nations offices in New York and Geneva, the flag flies at half mast at the day after the death of a Head of State or a Head of Government of a member state, but generally not during the funeral. Other occasions are at the Secretary-General's discretion. Other offices may follow local practice. To honor the memory of Dag Hammarskjöld the UN issued postage stamps showing its flag at half mast.
In the United States, the President can issue an executive order for the flag of the United States to be flown at half-staff upon the death of principal figures of the United States government, and others, as a mark of respect to their memory. When such an order is issued, all government buildings, offices, public schools and military bases are to fly their flags at half-staff. Under federal law (4 U.S.C. § 7(f)), the flags of states, cities, localities, and pennants of societies, shall never be placed above the flag of the United States; thus, all other flags also fly at half-staff when the U.S. flag has been ordered to fly at half-staff. It is important to note that there is no penalty for failure to comply with the above law as to enforce such a law would violate the First Amendment.
Governors of the several U.S. states or territories are authorized by federal law to order all U.S. and state flags in their jurisdiction flown at half-staff as a mark of respect for a former or current state official who has died, or for a member of the armed forces who has died in active duty. The governor's authority to issue the order is more restricted than the president's and does not include the discretion to issue the order for state residents who do not meet the criteria stated. Since a governor's executive order affects only his or her state, not the entire country, these orders are distinguished from presidential proclamations.
- For thirty days after the death of a current or former president or president-elect, as occurred after the death of President Reagan and the death of President Ford.
- For ten days after the death of a current vice president, current or retired chief justice, or current speaker of the House of Representatives.
- From the day of death until interment of an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, a secretary of an executive or military department, a former vice president, the President Pro Tempore of the Senate, or the governor of a state, territory, or possession.
- On the day of death and the following day for a Member of Congress.
- On Memorial Day until noon.
- Upon presidential proclamation, which has recently included: the interment of Frank Buckles, the death of Senator Ted Kennedy, the remembrance of the 9/11 attacks, the death of Pope John Paul II, the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster in 2003, the victims of Hurricane Katrina, the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami, the deaths of Coretta Scott King and Rosa Parks, the Virginia Tech massacre, the Fort Hood massacre, the funeral of Neil Armstrong, the death of Libyan Ambassador Chris Stephens, the 2012 shooting in Aurora Colorado, the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, and the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings.
Federal law requires the flag be flown at half-staff on Peace Officers Memorial Day (May 15), unless that day is also Armed Forces Day. Yearly presidential proclamations also mandate that the flag be flown at half-staff on Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day (December 7), and Patriot Day (September 11).
On October 16, 2001, President George W. Bush approved legislation requiring the United States flag to be lowered to half-staff on all Federal buildings to memorialize fallen firefighters. Pub.L. 107–51 requires this action to occur annually in conjunction with observance of the National Fallen Firefighters Memorial Service. The date of the National Fallen Firefighters Memorial Service is traditionally the first Sunday in October. It is held at the National Fallen Firefighters Memorial in Emmitsburg, MD.
4 U.S.C. § 7(m) was modified with new legislation signed into effect on June 29, 2007, by President Bush, requiring any federal facility within a region, which proclaims half-staff to honor a member of the U.S. Armed Forces who died on active duty, to follow the half-staff proclamation.
In Zimbabwe the flag is flown at half mast at the conferrement of National Hero Status to the deceased. As a first generation republic, adjudication over such a status is currently done by ZANU-PF's politburo.
- Why Are Flags Flown at Half-Staff in Times of Mourning?
- Franklyn, Julian, Shield and Crest: An Account of the Art and Science of Heraldry (London: MacGibbon & Kee, 1961), 176
- Bartleby: Half-staff
-  Does a Flag Fly at Half-staff or Half-mast?
- Flags at half mast
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- Australian protocols for flying at half-mast
- Canadian Heritage announcements of half-masting
- Canadian rules for half-masting
- US Flag Code Concerning Flag Display
- calendar of Presidential and Gubernatorial half-staff orders for United States