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Retiring an American Flag

During my morning runs the route I usually take passes an apartment complex by a small lake. The owners have three flag poles and always have The US flag, our state flag and another flag on display. It has been interesting to watch the learning process of flying the flags in the proper positions. Today I saw another situation that encouraged me to write this article. The flag was torn in several places with the stripes separated and wrapped around the flag pole. Clearly it was time to retire this flag.

What is the proper way to retire a flag? Through all of my searching I have found only the following basic guideline in the US Flag Code:

"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."

There are several variations of retirement ceremonies and I have provided links to a couple of sites that describe these ceremonies in some detail. Although any ceremony that retires the flag with dignity could be performed, there are two basic ceremonies that appear to be used most often. In the first ceremony each stripe is cut a part form the flag and separated by red and white stripes (a variation is to separate the 13th stripe and have the other stripes in sections). The blue field with the stars is separated. In some ceremonies the field is cut so each star is separated. Each of the groupings is burned in turn with an appropriate comment- for instance, the blue field stands for valor, the white stripes stand for purity and the red represents the sacrifices men and women have paid for our freedom.

The second ceremony burns the flag in tact. Four Scouts holding each corner of the flag bring the flag to the ceremonial fire. Some ceremonies say that different types of wood (redwood, oak cedar, etc.) have been added to the fire to represent different American characteristics. The flag is draped over the fire slowly lowered into the flames.

Some troops, packs and crews treat the flag with a flammable material to insure the flag material burns well. If a nylon flag is being retired, be very careful- nylon gets consumed in a fire very quickly and is very hot.

There are a number of myths about retiring a flag. The stripes do not need to be separated to retire a flag. Separated stripes do not have to be cut by scissors or shears. You do not have to be 18 years old to participate in a flag retirement ceremony.

Retirement ceremonies can be an important, moving and informative part of Scouting.

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