By Gary Bond, American Legion Historian
For the Carter County Times
How To Properly Dispose of a Worn Out US Flag
Many Americans proudly fly the U.S. flag at their homes and places of work, but what do you do with it when it’s old and tattered, and you’re ready for a new one? Don’t just throw it in the trash like any other old item – that’s considered disrespectful.
Just as there’s etiquette for displaying Old Glory, there’s also etiquette of disposing of flags in a dignified manner.
Flag Retirement Ceremonies
Many state and county government offices and Veterans of Foreign Wars posts have flag disposal boxes outside of their buildings. Police stations also collect them. Once the disposal boxes are full, various organizations such as American Legions, VFW’s and the Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts collect the flags and hold flag retirement ceremonies. Rules on how to properly fly the flag were established in June 1923, when the National Flag Conference met in Washington. Its members created the Flag Code, which states that “the flag represents a living country and is itself considered a living thing.”
The American Legion passed a resolution about flag retirement ceremonies in 1937, and they’ve been an important ritual ever since. According to the resolution, “(t)he approved method for disposing – of unserviceable flags has long been that they be destroyed by burning.”
The U.S. flag is considered such a sacred symbol that burning it in an undignified manner constitutes desecration. That’s why the ceremonies are held in a specific manner.
Every year on June 14, Americans celebrate Flag Day. Not surprisingly, it’s considered the most appropriate day to hold flag disposal ceremonies, which are often held at night.
During an American Legion ceremony, participants stand aligned in two parallel rows about 20 feet apart, facing each other. A small fire burns beyond the rows of members, opposite the Legion commander.
The flags that are no longer serviceable are presented to Legion commanders, who inspect them to make sure they should, in fact, be discarded. When it’s agreed upon that they’ve reached their current worn state due to proper service of tribute, memory and love, a color guard presents the colors, and a chaplain offers prayers.
As the crowd salutes, the flag detail dips the retired flags into kerosene and puts them on a rack over the fire. A bugler sounds “To The Colors.”
If you have American flags that need to be retired, they can be dropped off at any American Legion or a legion member will be happy to take them for you.
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