Putting up a flag pole and raising a new flag for the first time last week got me wondering about flag protocol. I know we are never to let a flag touch the ground, we’re not supposed to use it for commercial purposes or for clothing, and when a flag is worn out we should dispose of it by burning.
But, what else? Flying the flag at half-mast, for instance. When do we do that? Literature on the subject says our flag should be flown at half-mast at the death of heads of state. At the death of the president or former president, all government agencies will fly the flag at half-mast for 30 days. For other government officials, the flag flies at half-mast from the time of death till interment.
When we set a flag at half-mast, we are to first raise it to the top and then slowly bring it down halfway as a sign of respect for the person being honored. Going back to full staff is to be done “briskly and with pride.”
There is one holiday that calls for flying the flag at half-mast. On Memorial Day, the flag is to be flown at half-mast from sunrise to noon in honor of American war dead.
In official ceremonies, something else happens at noon on Memorial Day: a 21-gun salute is fired at noon just before the flag is restored to full staff. Twenty-one guns are also fired on Washington’s Birthday, Presidents’ Day and the Fourth of July as well as at the funeral of a president or former president.
Firing three rifle volleys over a grave, I discovered, is not a 21-gun salute. It has a totally different purpose and origin. It is actually an old military custom, probably started in Europe when both sides of a battle ceased firing to collect the dead. Each side would fire three shots at the end of the period to signify the dead had been cared for.
The current practice of firing three shots at a military funeral has the same purpose. It signifies that the dead have been cared for. The three volleys are usually fired by seven servicemen, hence the confusion with a 21-gun salute. To further emphasize that care has been afforded the deceased, three empty shell casings are inserted into the flag before it is given to the next of kin.
All of these meandering thoughts came from raising a new flag on a new flag pole at my home. I even recited the Pledge of Allegiance to myself as I hauled the flag skyward. I guess that makes me a patriot.