Friday, July 21, 2017

On how to retire an American flag

I wrote Wednesday about our visit to Fort McHenry, the birthplace of our National Anthem. While composing the post about the “Star-Spangled Banner” I was reminded of our recent trip to Chester State Park, where we had the honor of attending a Flag Retirement Ceremony.

The United States Flag Code states, “The flag, when it is in such condition that it is no longer a fitting emblem of display, should be destroyed in a dignified way, preferably by burning.” I knew that when a flag becomes worn, torn, faded or badly soiled, it is time to replace it with a new flag, and I also understood that the old flag should be "retired" with dignity and respect. However, I had never before witnessed the incineration of a worn flag, and didn’t know that the Boy Scouts of America accept old flags for retirement.

The simple ceremony was dignified; a solemn and respectful ritual that all three of my boys learned a great deal from. We had discussed earlier that they will have to be as quiet as they can manage during the service, and Lauris wore his Cub Scout uniform for the occasion. We gathered around a fire that had been specially stacked and lit for the occasion, and when darkness fell the Scoutmaster and Scouts proceeded to follow a Flag Retirement Ceremony script. If you are interested in sample ceremonials, you can find various examples here and here.

The goal is to completely incinerate the flag; the Scouts maintained a vigil over the fire until all traces of the flag remnants were destroyed, and only then was the fire extinguished. The following morning only grommets remained as a testimonial to the formal observance that had taken place there the previous night. The Cub Scouts and their younger siblings each chose one to remind them of the ceremony and all it stands for, and then the ashes were buried. I also kept a grommet, as well as a few photographs to serve as a memento, though the memory of the brilliant colors of mingling flames and Old Glory will be with me each time I see the Star-Spangled Banner flying high.

A couple of questions I had that were answered by the Scoutmaster and a little research:
How do you know your flag should be retired?
If possible, mend a tattered flag at early signs of wear, but if the flag is unable to be repaired or is too tattered then the flag should be retired.
Who is authorized to retire a U.S. flag?
There are many local organizations that will take your flag for proper retirement, including (but not limited to) the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the American Legion, Boy Scouts of America, Girl Scouts of America and the Marine Corps League. However, the Flag Code does not authorize any one organization with this duty - any one person or group can retire a flag.

And a few recommended precautions:
- When burning flags made of synthetic fibers, be aware that they may burn quickly and even emit noxious gases. 
- It is important that the fire be sizable in order to ensure complete burning of the flag, yet one should take precautions against bits of the flag being carried off by a roaring fire.
Make sure the fire is safely extinguished before leaving the location.
- Some communities/municipalities have regulations prohibiting open fires. In this case it is suggested to turn to a local organization that accepts flags for retirement.

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