The Proper Standard: Flag Retirement Ceremonies

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The Proper Standard authors Hunter and Ross Simmons

by Hunter and Ross Simmons

While there is no greater symbol of freedom worldwide than “Old Glory,” the authors believe that its patriotic display is only mildly more inconvenient, but far more reverent and appropriate, if done compliant with federal law and consistent with the Rules of Flag Etiquette.

Question: “Our flag at the office is getting ready for retirement and you said in a previous article burning is the preferred method. You mentioned a fireplace, barbecue or fire pit.  Is there a ritual or manner to burn the flag?  It seems harsh to just throw it in the fire.”

Answer:  In short, there are no prescribed rules related to the means of flag retirement. The only Flag Code reference on the subject is that which you have read previously:

“The flag, when it is in such condition that it is no longer a fitting emblem for display, should be destroyed in a dignified way, preferably by burning.”  Flag Code, Section 8(k).

Drawing on that authority, the single criteria for flag retirement is that it be “dignified.” While burning is “preferable,” it is not required; any dignified means of destruction will be compliant.

Debunking the Myths

Accepting this succinct authority as it is (which our readers know to be of our ilk), it is then a short step to expose popularly-held beliefs as just that, unsupported by applicable authority.

It is commonly asserted, for example, that the United States flag must be retired if it touches the ground. Granted, the Flag Code admonishes that “[t]he flag should never touch anything beneath it, such as the ground, the floor, water or merchandise” (Flag Code, Section 8(b)). However, as long as the flag “is in such condition that it is a fitting emblem for display” as described by Section 8(k), it can continue to be used and displayed whether or not it touches the ground.

While some assert that only qualified persons or organizations may engage in the act of flag retirement, there is no such authority, either for there being restrictions on, or qualification for participation in flag retirements.

Too, some say burning is the only proper means of flag retirement. From the statute itself, we know this is not correct. Burning is preferred but not exclusive.

Possible Ceremonial Elements

Returning to the question itself, no, there is no “ritual or manner to burn the flag.” Section 8(k) only requires that the act be undertaken “in a dignified way.” If, as the question posits, “it seems harsh to just throw it in the fire,” we ought only to pause and add moment to the action and occasion.

Not surprisingly, the ceremonies in which we have participated have been extraordinarily diverse, “dignity” being their common element. The means of retiring the flag of the United States “in a dignified way,” rightfully, as diverse as the people who would seek to do so, is itself a testament to the country for which it stands.

  • What to say at the ceremony? There is no script to a flag retirement, although an Internet search could provide plenty of examples or those seeking assistance in preparing one. The real intent of the Flag Code is that dignity transcends specific words—and even languages, for that matter. Of course, the Pledge of Allegiance is typically part of the ceremony, by convention, whether before or during the actual retirement. Reaffirming our citizenship by pledging allegiance to a flag a final time seems like the most dignified gesture one can show on such occasion. Other wholly appropriate elements to a retirement ceremony are poems, songs, and prayers (for those of religious belief, regardless of denomination). If the flag’s actual use prior to retirement is known and of significance to the participants, that form of testimonial is an intimate addition to the program.
  • What do at the ceremony? The American Legion’s “Ceremony for Disposal of Unserviceable Flags” contemplates properly-folded flags being burned at retirement, placed on “a rack over the fire.” That is an accepted approach. Other, typically smaller events will have one or several flags retired while spread open, often ceremoniously held at corners by four participants, which is often more dramatic and hence more impactful. The point is that there is no “right” way to retire a flag by burning—the only “wrong” methods are those that are not dignified, as called for by the Flag Code.

To underscore the breadth of possible ceremonies in closing, one acquaintance shared that he actually conducts a flag retirement ceremony all alone and without speaking a word. He does this every year on the occasion of his son’s birthday, to commemorate his son’s death while in the armed services. It’s a ceremony we’ve never seen, and yet we believe it to be the most dignified of them all.

Authors Ross Simmons and his son, Hunter, are life members of the National Eagle Scout Association, and Ross is Scoutmaster at Imperial’s Troop 4070. Have a question of Flag Etiquette? Please submit your questions or photos to submit@properstandard.com. (By submitting, you’re licensing content for use.)