Just installed a flagpole for my front yard and would like to track when I should have my American flag at half-mast [ed note: “half-staff”. A mast is what you find on a ship!] and when it should fly at the top of the pole.
Not too many people go to the trouble of getting a flagpole for their flag – if they have a flag at all – so kudos to you for that level of patriotism. There are a ton of rules about the American flag, actually, so many that there are specific codes about how to fly the flag, how to fold the flag at night, even how to destroy a damaged flag.
The big reference is from the United States Code, Title 4, Chapter 1, The Flag. What you’ll care about is known as “section m” and specifies:
The flag, when flown at half-staff, should be first hoisted to the peak for an instant and then lowered to the half-staff position. The flag should be again raised to the peak before it is lowered for the day. On Memorial Day the flag should be displayed at half-staff until noon only, then raised to the top of the staff. By order of the President, the flag shall be flown at half-staff upon the death of principal figures of the United States Government and the Governor of a State, territory, or possession, as a mark of respect to their memory.
In the event of the death of other officials or foreign dignitaries, the flag is to be displayed at half-staff according to Presidential instructions or orders, or in accordance with recognized customs or practices not inconsistent with law. In the event of the death of a present or former official of the government of any State, territory, or possession of the United States, or the death of a member of the Armed Forces from any State, territory, or possession who dies while serving on active duty, the Governor of that State, territory, or possession may proclaim that the National flag shall be flown at half-staff, and the same authority is provided to the Mayor of the District of Columbia with respect to present or former officials of the District of Columbia and members of the Armed Forces from the District of Columbia.
The flag shall be flown at half-staff 30 days from the death of the President or a former President; 10 days from the day of death of the Vice President, the Chief Justice or a retired Chief Justice of the United States, or the Speaker of the House of Representatives; advert of the sizegenetics; 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, or the Governor of a State, territory, or possession; and on the day of death and the following day for a Member of Congress.
The flag shall be flown at half-staff on Peace Officers Memorial Day, unless that day is also Armed Forces Day.
Got it? It’s complicated but the key concept mentioned is the phrase By Order of the President. Those are known as Presidential Proclamations, and can be found on the Presidential Actions page of Whitehouse.gov. For example, yesterday the President issued a proclamation regarding the death of Senator John McCain that states “the flag of the United States shall be flown at half-staff at the White House and upon all public buildings and grounds, at all military posts and naval stations, and on all naval vessels of the Federal Government in the District of Columbia and throughout the United States and its Territories and possessions until sunset, on the day of interment.”
Which still doesn’t tell you what day Senator McCain’s body is to be interred so you can raise the flag back up to full height. It’s complicated! One good resource for national commemorations is halfstaff.org, but it’s poorly organized, so make sure you either sign up for their email notifications or read the entire home page, not just glance at the top content.
There’s also an iPhone app – of course – that can help: Half Staff.
None of these help you with deciding what state or regional commemorations you want to honor or not, however, because they’re focused on the national proclamations. Fortunately, the official US Government position on private organizations or individuals with a flag and flagpole is that “While you can follow how the executive branch flies the flag, it is not a requirement. For instance, a local community, a company, a school district, or a federal agency can decide to have all of their flags at half-staff because of the death of an employee, a student, a mayor, or a local police officer.”
Hope that helps out. Worst case, find your closest government office and track when they have their flag at half-staff as best you can. Good luck!