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Why Are Flags Flown at Half-Staff in Times of Mourning?

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XINHUA/LANDOV

The White House flag is flying at half-staff to mourn the passing of Nelson Mandela. This has become a well-recognized symbol of national grieving, but where did the tradition originate, and how does the decision to lower the flag work?

How did the tradition of flying the flag at half-staff get started?
It's tough to say, but the oldest commonly accepted reference to a half-staff flag dates back to 1612, when the captain of the British ship Heart's Ease died on a journey to Canada. When the ship returned to London, it was flying its flag at half-mast to honor the departed captain.

Why would these sailors lower their flag to honor their departed captain?
According to one line of scholarly thinking, by lowering the Union Jack, the sailors were making room for the invisible flag of Death. This explanation jibes with the British tradition of flying a "half-staff" flag exactly one flag's width lower than its normal position to underscore that Death's flag is flapping above it.

How long is the flag flown at half-staff in the United States?
It depends on whom the nation is mourning. Title 4, Chapter 1, Section 7 of the United States Code outlines strict guidelines for how long the flag is flown at half-staff following the deaths of various members of the government.

The death of a current or former president lowers the flag for 30 days, while the current vice president, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and Speaker of the House receive 10 days of half-staff flying following their deaths.

Flags fly at half-staff from the day of death until the date of interment for cabinet secretaries, Associate Justices of the Supreme Court, former vice presidents, and the governors of states. The death of a current member of Congress lowers the flag to half-staff on the day of death and following day.

Does the President have any leeway when he's making these orders?
Yes, the President can make an executive order lowering the flag to half-staff to honor the passing of other important figures or tragic events. For example, President George W. Bush ordered the flags flown at half-staff until the interment of Pope John Paul II. For Mandela, the flags will remain at half-staff until sunset on December 9.

With national tragedies, the length of time seems to be a bit more arbitrary. Following the September 11th attacks, Bush ordered the flag be flown at half-staff until September 16, 2001. The Indian Ocean earthquake and resulting tsunamis in 2004 prompted flags to be flown at half-staff from a Monday through the end of the following Friday.

What days is the flag always flown at half-staff?
The flag always flies on half-staff on Patriot Day (September 11 of each year), Peace Officers Memorial Day (May 15), and Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day (December 7). On Memorial Day, the flag flies at half-staff until noon, at which point it is raised to the top of the staff.

What if I can't fly my flag at half-staff?
Some flags, like the ones commonly seen in school classrooms or on houses, are fixed in a certain position on their poles. How does one handle the sticky situation of a flag that physically can't be flown at half-staff? The United States Code doesn't cover this conundrum, but the American Legion advocates adding a black ribbon to the top of the flag's pole to indicate mourning.

Can anyone other than the President order flags to be flown at half-staff?
Sure. Governors of states, territories, and possessions have the authority under the federal flag code to order a half-staffing, as does the mayor of Washington, D.C.

It's not uncommon for a local mayor to order a half-staffing following the death of some prominent citizen, and occasionally businesses will half-staff their flags to honor the passing of a member of the company. Technically, these sorts of half-staffings aren't covered by the federal flag code. There's no penalty for breaking the federal flag code, though, so it's generally no big deal if a local leader wants to honor a prominent citizen in this way.

How does one raise a flag to half-staff?
Surprisingly, not just by raising it halfway up the flagpole. To properly fly a flag at half-staff in mourning, one quickly raises the flag to the peak of the pole before slowly lowering it back down to the half-staff position.

Portions of this post originally appeared in 2009.

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Big Questions
What Makes a Cat's Tail Puff Up When It's Scared?
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Cats wear their emotions on their tails, not their sleeves. They tap their fluffy rear appendages during relaxing naps, thrash them while tense, and hold them stiff and aloft when they’re feeling aggressive, among other behaviors. And in some scary situations (like, say, being surprised by a cucumber), a cat’s tail will actually expand, puffing up to nearly twice its volume as its owner hisses, arches its back, and flattens its ears. What does a super-sized tail signify, and how does it occur naturally without help from hairspray?

Cats with puffed tails are “basically trying to make themselves look as big as possible, and that’s because they detect a threat in the environment," Dr. Mikel Delgado, a certified cat behavior consultant who studied animal behavior and human-pet relationships as a PhD student at the University of California, Berkeley, tells Mental Floss. The “threat” in question can be as major as an approaching dog or as minor as an unexpected noise. Even if a cat isn't technically in any real danger, it's still biologically wired to spring to the offensive at a moment’s notice, as it's "not quite at the top of the food chain,” Delgado says. And a big tail is reflexive feline body language for “I’m big and scary, and you wouldn't want to mess with me,” she adds.

A cat’s tail puffs when muscles in its skin (where the hair base is) contract in response to hormone signals from the stress/fight or flight system, or sympathetic nervous system. Occasionally, the hairs on a cat’s back will also puff up along with the tail. That said, not all cats swell up when a startling situation strikes. “I’ve seen some cats that seem unflappable, and they never get poofed up,” Delgado says. “My cats get puffed up pretty easily.”

In addition to cats, other animals also experience piloerection, as this phenomenon is technically called. For example, “some birds puff up when they're encountering an enemy or a threat,” Delgado says. “I think it is a universal response among animals to try to get themselves out of a [potentially dangerous] situation. Really, the idea is that you don't have to fight because if you fight, you might lose an ear or you might get an injury that could be fatal. For most animals, they’re trying to figure out how to scare another animal off without actually going fisticuffs.” In other words, hiss softly, but carry a big tail.

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What Happened to the Physical Copy of the 'I Have a Dream' Speech?
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AFP, Getty Images

On August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and gave a speech for the ages, delivering the oratorical masterpiece "I Have a Dream" to nearly 250,000 people.

When he was done, King stepped away from the podium, folded his speech, and found himself standing in front of George Raveling, a former Villanova basketball player who, along with his friend Warren Wilson, had been asked to provide extra security around Dr. King while he was speaking. "We were both tall, gangly guys," Raveling told TIME in 2003. "We didn't know what we were doing but we certainly made for a good appearance."

Moved by the speech, Raveling saw the folded papers in King’s hands and asked if he could have them. King gave the young volunteer the speech without hesitation, and that was that.

“At no time do I remember thinking, ‘Wow, we got this historic document,’” Raveling told Sports Illustrated in 2015. Not realizing he was holding what would become an important piece of history in his hands, Raveling went home and stuck the three sheets of paper into a Harry Truman biography for safekeeping. They sat there for nearly two decades while Raveling developed an impressive career coaching NCAA men’s basketball.

In 1984, he had recently taken over as the head coach at the University of Iowa and was chatting with Bob Denney of the Cedar Rapids Gazette when Denney brought up the March on Washington. That's when Raveling dropped the bomb: “You know, I’ve got a copy of that speech," he said, and dug it out of the Truman book. After writing an article about Raveling's connection, the reporter had the speech professionally framed for the coach.

Though he displayed the framed speech in his house for a few years, Raveling began to realize the value of the piece and moved it to a bank vault in Los Angeles. Though he has received offers for King’s speech—one collector wanted to purchase the speech for $3 million in 2014—Raveling has turned them all down. He has been in talks with various museums and universities and hopes to put the speech on display in the future, but for now, he cherishes having it in his possession.

“That to me is something I’ll always be able to look back and say I was there,” Raveling said in the original Cedar Rapids Gazette article. “And not only out there in that arena of people, but to be within touching distance of him. That’s like when you’re 80 or 90 years old you can look back and say ‘I was in touching distance of Abraham Lincoln when he made the Gettysburg Address.’"

“I have no idea why I even asked him for the speech,” Raveling, now CEO of Coaching for Success, has said. “But I’m sure glad that I did.”

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