The United States Flag represents many things. Not only does Old Glory stand as a symbol of our country and the brave men and women who defend it, but also our history and continued commitment to the Constitution and each other. What do we do with a faded flag, or one tattered beyond repair? What do we do with the flag that once flew so proudly? Well, according to the United States Flag Code, Title 4, Section 8k, the flag should be retired when it is in such condition that is “no longer a fitting emblem for display” and should be destroyed in a dignified way, preferably by burning it.
Now, I know saying that may bring images of the flag burned unceremoniously over a makeshift fire or flaming barrel – that is NOT a dignified way. Personally, I prefer the term ‘cremate’ as opposed to ‘burn.’ While the outcome is similar, the essence couldn’t be more different. In my mind, flag retirement is similar to a funeral. So similar in fact, that another way to retire a flag is to bury it in a dignified box.
Ok, but exactly what should we do?
The Alamo Area Council cannot accept flags ready for retirement and encourages units to perform these ceremonies themselves. However, many unit leaders I’ve spoken with have voiced a general lack of confidence when thinking about conducting a Flag Retirement Ceremony themselves. During a recent clean-up at the central office, worn flags turned up, and as a Cubmaster, I decided to take them home to retire them with the help of my Pack’s Wolf Den. Now, I will admit, I’ve seen it done a couple of times, but never intended on orchestrating one, so when it came time to teach my cubs, I researched the various methods before making any decisions.
As it turns out, there is no one specific way to conduct the ceremony in the lead-up to the cremation. As such, there are countless ways different organizations conduct theirs. I encourage you to take look at what others have done before deciding how to conduct yours. The key is for it to be performed in a dignified way. To do that, consider the age and temperament of your scouts. I knew I’d have about 30-minutes before my kids would start to get squirrely, so I quickly ruled ones requiring a scripted ceremony or multiple steps, and created one that worked for us. What I didn’t know is how common it is to perform these ceremonies on Flag Day, but since we already scheduled the date, we proceeded as planned.
Note: If your flag is made from nylon or polyester, do not burn it. The smoke will contain dangerous chemicals that could harm your lungs. Instead, find a recycling center near you and take it there. Keep this in mind when purchasing new flags for your unit and purchase cotton ones.
Duty To Country with the Wolves of Pack 2523
Communication and Planning
The den leader and I started by calling each parent a day or two ahead of time. Most of them had never seen a flag cremated, so I wanted to explain the process and answer any questions before the date. It can be uncomfortable to watch when you don’t understand what’s happening. We asked the scouts to come in their Field Uniform, and their parents to wear suitable attire (but low temperatures made those brave enough to come outside bundle anyway).
Knowing we’d need to start and tend to the fire, two parents volunteered to do it. Our den leader volunteered to take photos to document the ceremony, but refrained from taking any during the actual cremation. We did this for two reasons: we didn’t want anyone outside the ceremony to see a single image out of context and misunderstand our purpose, and going back to the funeral perspective, we felt it best to put down the camera during the physical cremation.
We took our time with the process. We began by discussing our feelings when we see the flag flying. “Happy,” “proud,” and “brave,” were all mentioned. Then, I unfolded the retiring flag and asked my scouts to describe how they felt seeing this one. “Sad,” was all they could muster. My son voiced his anger, “Why would anyone do that to our flag?” I’m glad he said something, because I didn’t plan on explaining the sun’s effect on fabric, or the wind’s assault on the flying end of it. It made sense though, because these kids have never seen a worn flag – worn flags are not flown. It provided another teaching moment including how to repair a flag and reinforced the need for proper flag retirement.
After we inspect the flag, we raised it for its final flight. At its height, we recited the Pledge of Allegiance one last time, took a moment of silence. As with any other flag, we lowered it slowly. Tattered edges made it difficult to hang and retrieve; yet another example of our need to retire it.
The Scouts carried it carefully to a table, where I cut the flag into four pieces, leaving the blue field undisturbed. (The blue star field represents the union of the fifty states and should never be broken.) Each scout took a square and brought it to the readied fire. We didn’t need to tell the kids to do it reverently, by that time they knew what to do and took their job seriously. As each scout added his piece to the fire, they said what they loved about America. As the fire consumed it, they sat together in silence until the flag was no more. The ceremony was powerful for all of us, and one we’ll not shy away from in the future. Afterall, part of our Duty to Country is to care for America’s flag properly, no matter its condition.
About the author:
Jennifer eats, sleeps, and breathes Scouting. She lives on property at Mays Family Scout Ranch with her family for four, and though her husband is the Ranger for the Alamo Area BSA’s property, it’s not unusual to catch a glimpse of her leading a hike or opening up the Trading Post on-site. She’s the Cubmaster and founder of Pack 2523, and the marketing assistant for the council. In her freetime she likes to cook, write, and listen to music…sometimes all at once!