A Patriot’s Guide to Retiring an American Flag

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The American flag will always be an enduring symbol of our history, values and culture. Nonetheless, flags do not last forever. Over time, your flag will become soiled, faded or frayed from exposure to the elements or the passage of time itself. When one or more of these conditions becomes evident, it is every patriot’s duty to retire an old flag respectfully. Luckily, there are multiple options for appropriate flag disposal.

Option One: A Ceremonial Burning

Although the idea of burning a flag may sound like a violent desecration, this is the preferred method of disposal, according to the United States government. In fact, the American Legion has produced a detailed procedure for retiring old American flags through burning that they approved at their 19th National Convention in September 1937. Essential elements include:

  • Conducting the ceremony at night
  • Maintaining a reverent atmosphere
  • Ensuring that the flag is properly folded before burning
  • Only burning the flag in a large bonfire
  • Ensuring all parts of the flag fully burn down to ashes
  • Offering prayers of thanks afterwards

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When the American Legion passed the resolution for their flag retirement ceremony, American flags were generally made from materials like cotton, wool and silk. Because these flags were made of natural fibers, they did not last long and were prone to becoming faded by sunlight or frayed and torn from wind and ordinary wear and tear. Modern flags are usually made from nylon and other synthetic materials that have far greater endurance but may present other problems over time.

Option Two: Cutting Your Flag

Because modern flags are made from petroleum-based products, burning them releases toxic gases such as “formaldehydes, ammonia, carbon monoxide, cyclopentanone, oxides of nitrogen, traces of hydrogen cyanide [and] incompletely burned hydrocarbons.” Therefore, people are increasingly looking to methods other than ceremonial burning to respectfully dispose of an American flag.

Cutting your flag into pieces is one approved option for disposal. This is acceptable because once it is cut into pieces, it is no longer considered a flag.

The U.S. Scouts Procedure for Cutting and Retiring a Flag dictates you must:

  • Stretch the flag out by its four corners.
  • Cut the flag in half widthwise, being careful not to cut in any part of the blue area. This blue star field symbolizes the union of all 50 states and therefore should not be cut or otherwise split apart in any way.
  • Put the two halves together and cut in half lengthwise.
  • This will leave you with four sections of flag. Three will be red and white stripes, and one will be the blue star field.
  • Dispose of these pieces of the flag properly.

Option Three: Recycling Your Flag

Recycling is an eco-friendly option for respectfully retiring your flag that is gaining increasing popularity. Several companies offer recycling services for your flag. For example, American Flag Disposal will recycle your flag using the following procedure:

  • Make a nominal suggested donation that is based on the size of your flag.
  • The company collects retired flags until there is enough tonnage to ship them to a fabric recycler.
  • Part of your donation covers the cost of recycling your flag.
  • The remainder of your donation goes to Operation Purple Heart.

Option Four: Flag Burial

Have you ever considered offering final rites for your flag? American Disposal Services offers the rather innovative solution of burying your flag. To do so, they recommend:

  • Folding your flag correctly.
  • Placing it in a wooden box.
  • Burying it in the ground.
  • Offering a short funeral or prayer for your flag after you have buried it.

Option Five: Donating Your Flag to an Outside Organization

There are several specific governmental and private organizations that will accept your flag upon request. These include the armed services, the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts of America and your local American Legion Post or Veterans of Foreign Wars chapter. Each of these organizations is designated to provide the correct ceremonies for flag retirement.

Many Methods, One Purpose

There are multiple options for retiring your American flag, but they all serve one common purpose: to retire the flag in a manner that is respectful, safe and patriotic.

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Bringing in the New

Once you have retired your beloved old American flag, we are happy to provide you with a new one. Our American flags are well-constructed, made in America and economically designed to meet any budget. We offer outdoor American flags, indoor American flags and parade flag sets as well as flag poles, patriotic gear and other essentials. We ensure that retiring a flag will never mean you have to retire your patriotism along with it.

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