“The earliest record we have of the lowering of a flag to signify a death was an occasion in 1612, when the Master of the ‘Hearts Ease’, William Hall, was murdered by Eskimos while taking part in an expedition in search of the North West Passage. On rejoining her consort, the vessel’s flag was flown trailing over the stern as a mark of mourning. On her return to London, the ‘Hearts Ease’ again flew her flag over the stern and it was recognized as an appropriate gesture of mourning.”
“It was the habit, after the restoration of the Monarchy in 1660, for ships of the Royal Navy to fly their flags at half-mast on the anniversary of the execution of King Charles I on 30th January 1649, and it is from this custom that, so far as we can trace, the present practice of announcing a death by the flying of a flag at half-mast has evolved. The earlier practice at sea was to fly a black flag or to set a black sail.
We know that the hoisting of black sails was a sign of mourning from the very earliest times. The black sail was superseded by the black flag, probably because it was a nuisance to have to carry black sails for use only on rare occasions. It was probably the position, rather than the color, that caught the attention, particularly at a distance.”
There are several theories regarding the symbolism of a half-mast flag. The first and most prevalent interpretation is that it allows for the “invisible flag of death” to fly above it. This also leads to the practice that the flag should only be one flag-width down, instead of actually halfway down the staff. The second theory is that “untidiness and slovenliness of appearance were supposed to be the signs of grief.” The third theory is that it is a salute to the departed (also in the previous link).
When a flag cannot be lowered to half-mast (such as a fixed flag or the flags of a military unit) they can be marked with a black streamer. Some countries (like Japan for example) choose to use either a black ribbon or the half-mast depending upon the situation. Saudi Arabia is one of the few countries that does not lower their flag to half-mast as it contains holy writing on it and it would be considered blasphemous.
Protocol for raising a flag to half-mast requires that it is raised to the finial quickly and then slowly lowered to the position of half-mast. Some countries (like the US) fly their flags halfway down the staff while others (like the UK) fly it two-thirds between the bottom and top of the staff. The reason for two-thirds is for the invisible flag of death. Lowering a half-mast flag is done by doing the reverse so that it is raised back to the finial quickly and then slowly lowered the entire way.
The flag is generally flown at half-mast from sunrise to sunset on the specified days, except on the US Memorial Day when it is flown half-mast until noon when it is raised to full-mast. The reason for this is that the first half of the day remembers the war dead while the second half honors those still alive. When Congress approved this they issued the proclamation, “For the nation lives, and the flag is a symbol of illumination.”
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