In somber times, we recognize the flag at half-staff as a symbol of a nation in mourning. The practice is observed in nearly every country across the world in mourning of important figures or events and is always related to death. Theories regarding the origins of the practice are contentious, but it has a long history extending to at least the 17th century.
In the United States, one of the earliest accounts of the flag being flown at half-staff was to mourn the passing of none other than George Washington himself by the Vessels of the Navy. However, the practice dates back even further than the birth of the United States.
An unfortunate venture
In the early 1600s, King Christian IV of Denmark sent out expeditions to locate ancient Norse settlements and take them in the name of his country. William Hall led one of these expeditions in search of the Northwest Passage when he came upon a group of Inuit. Unbeknownst to Hall, he was following in the steps of Scottish explorer John Cunningham, who had taken four Inuit as prisoners during his expedition. When Hall encountered the Inuits, he was attacked and killed. His crew members retreated. The rest of his crew steered the ship away to flee. Upon their return, the crew members hung the flag at half-staff, accounting for the earliest account of the practice, to commemorate their captain’s death.
The black flag
Hall’s story still relies upon some inherent symbolic meaning behind lowering the flag. Historians are divided on the initial symbolism behind the practice, but one popular theory proposes that it was to signify that the invisible flag of death flies above the lowered flag. This theory explains why the British only lower the flag by one flag-width rather than halfway down the staff as we do in America. It is thought that this practice grew from an earlier one in which a black flag was placed above the normal flag during times of mourning, but carrying the additional flag for rare use may have become cumbersome or seen as a bad omen for sailors. Other theories posit that the unkempt nature of flying the flag at half-staff signifies grief. Finally, it may have started as a symbolic salute to the fallen.
Across the world
Flying the flag at half-staff is a widespread practice across world cultures to signify mourning. Some countries also place a black ribbon above their flag. The deaths of leaders are frequently signified by half-staff, but it may also signify historical or religious tragedies. In Russia, the flag is lowered on June 22 to commemorate the Nazi invasion of the USSR. In Israel it is lowered for Holocaust remembrance day. Almost every country in the world has a procedure or tradition in which they lower the flag to half-staff, but Saudi Arabia is one rare exception. The Saudi flag is an inscription of the Shahada, signifying the message of Islam. Because of this, lowering the flag is seen as blasphemous and therefore never practiced.
In the United States, the flag is lowered to half-staff for a series of occasions including Memorial Day, September 11, and for deaths of members of congress, the Supreme Court, or the executive branch. Outside of these occasions, the President of the United States can issue an executive order to fly the flag at half-staff across all government buildings, public schools, and military bases. Governors may also issue a similar order within the boundaries of their state. Failing to comply with either order does not incur a fine, as doing so would violate the First Amendment.