Half-staff or half-mast describes a flag flying approximately halfway up a flagpole or ship's mast (though anywhere from one-third to two-thirds of the way up is acceptable, but see below). This is done in many countries as a symbol of respect, mourning, or distress.
The tradition of flying the flag at half-mast began centuries ago to allow the invisible flag of death to fly on top of the mast, thus signifying death's presence, power, and prominence. In some countries, for example the UK, and especially in military contexts, a "half-staff" flag is still flown exactly one flag's width down from its normal position, and no lower, in order to allow for this flag of death. This was the original flag etiquette. However, with larger flags on shorter hoists on many public buildings, the practice of actual half-staff has become common, especially outside the UK, where it is now standard to fly the flag at halfway up 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-staff, it should be hoisted to full staff for an instant, then lowered to half-staff. Likewise when it is lowered at the end of the day, it is to be hoisted to full staff for an instant, and then lowered.
The term "half-mast" is commonly used colloquially to refer to half-staff, although military tradition indicates 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.
|Occasion or date||Protocol or significance|
|The death of the sovereign||From the time of notification of death until the proclamation of the accession of the new monarch|
|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|
|April 28 of each year||Marking the Day of Mourning for Persons 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|
|September 11 of each year||Marking America Remembers; further, flags are flown at half-mast at Canadian diplomatic missions in the United States on this 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 state funeral of Ronald Reagan, the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, the 2005 Mayerthorpe Incident, the death of Pope John Paul II, the 2005 London bombings, the death of Ernest Smith, and the state funerals of former U.S. presidents Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford.
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
The flag of the People's Republic of China is flown at half-staff, according to the National Flag Law:
If the intimation of the death of any dignitary is received in the afternoon, the flag shall be flown at half-staff on the following day also at the place or places indicated above, provided the funeral has not taken place before sun-rise 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 half-staff day coinciding with the Republic Day, Independence Day, Mahatma Gandhi's birthday, National Week (6th to 13th 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 half-staff 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-staff 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.
When the national flag is flown at half-mast, no other flag should be half-masted.
For both government and public buildings, the flag of New Zealand is flown at half-mast for the following people:
In addition, it can also be half-masted at the request of the Minister for Arts, Culture and Heritage. Examples of this are for the deaths of Sir Edmund Hillary and Te Arikinui Dame Te Atairangikaahu, the Maori Queen
According to the Ministry of Culture and Heritage, 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.
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 Turkish flag is flown at half-staff all over the country every 10 November, between 09:05 and the sunset, in memory of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who died on November 10th, 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-staff 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-staff. In order to show the sympathy of Turkish people to some foreign leader, flags are also flown at half-staff 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 the monarch never dies: 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' 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 the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret, 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, 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:
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 staff, 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.
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 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.
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 state official or resident who has died. Since a governor's executive order affects only his or her state, not the entire country, these orders are distinguished from presidential proclamations.
Under the flag of the United States is to be flown at half-staff in following circumstances:
US 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 September 11 (Patriot Day).
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