When you see a flag flying at half-mast, it is natural to wonder, “Who passed away?” Typically, the American flag is flown at half-staff when someone has died, as a mark of respect, but it can also mean distress, to be in mourning, or, in some cases, a salute. This custom traces back to 1612 and an ill-fated mission.
In the early 1600s, King Christian IV of Denmark sent missions to Greenland in an effort to locate lost Norse settlements and conquer the island. In the first of three expeditions, John Cunningham, who was representing Denmark, captured four Inuits and imprisoned them. The long memories of the Inuits would not fail them, for seven years later another expedition went to the same area searching for silver and the Inuits speared explorer John Hall while he was in his boat.
The crew dropped the flag to half-mast when Hall was killed. Quartermaster John Gatonbe, who remained on the main ship behind the expedition ship, noticed this. In a firsthand account from Danish Arctic Expeditions, 1605-1620, he wrote, “This day, at night, came our vice-admiral, with our great pinnace at her stern, her flag hanging down, and her ancient [colors] hanging down over her poop, which was a sign of death.”
The earliest documented time the flags were at half-mast in the United States was in 1799 when George Washington died. The Navy ordered all vessels to “wear their colors half-mast high,” which legend has it is to make room for an invisible flag of Death. It makes sense, because the
British code for flying a flag at half-staff is one flag length below—almost as if making room for another flag to fly above it.
The flag of the Unites States flying at half-mast is a symbol of united grief and loss. Since 2001, the flag has flown at half-mast on September 11th in honor of those who died in the attack on the World Trade Center. In fact, this date became part of the presidential proclamation for which are the appropriate times for lowering the flag in the U.S., as follows:
- For thirty days after the death of a current or former president or president-elect.
- 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.
- Every September 11th in remembrance of the 9/11 attacks.
- Upon presidential proclamation, usually after the death of other notable figures or tragic events.