Flag Retirement Ceremonies, Which is Really the Correct Way?
The subject of flag retirement ceremonies sparks heated debates every year in Scouting circles. Like discussions of religion and politics, the flag and flag retirements evoke strong feelings in a lot of people. Many are willing to tell you that their way is the only way. So whoís to say which elements of flag retirement ceremonies are correct and which are not? Who is the "authority" on flag retirements?
As Scouters, we are bound by the authority of US law and by BSA policy. Regarding flag retirement, US Flag Code1 simply reads; "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." The only recommendation (not policy) from BSA regarding flag retirements appears in the BSA publication "Our Flag" which states; "When the national flag is worn beyond repair, burn it thoroughly and completely on a modest, but blazing fire. This should be done in a simple manner with dignity and respect. Be sure the flag is reduced to ashes unrecognizable as a former flag."2
In researching US laws pertaining to the flag, scouting publications, the Internet, and reading several years of Scouting newsgroup archives, nowhere was there cited official documents, other than these two, regarding flag retirements3. These two simple statements being the only official guidelines, many misconceptions are revealed.
Many well intended and patriotic people have deep seated ideas about how flag retirements are suppose to be done. Most of their ideas make wonderful flag retirement ceremonies, but are not necessarily fact when it comes to what MUST be done. Again, the simple statements of the US Flag Code and BSAís "Your Flag" book are the only rules we must follow. That said, the following common misconceptions are disproved.
- The flag must be cut up before retiring.
The Flag Code does not say anything about cutting up the flag. The 1980ís version of the BSA publication "Our Flag" did state "cut it into small pieces that will burn easily and completely on a modest, but blazing fire,"4 but later this part was removed, presumably due to differing customs and the lack of support by the Flag Code. The only conclusion that can be drawn then is; you may cut or not cut the flag as long as the flag is retired in a "dignified" manner.
- If the flag is cut, it must be done with scissors, not ripped or cut with a knife.
If this is your custom, it is great that you have such respect that you have developed specific customs for flag retirements. Be aware that others may have a custom that says the flag should only be ripped, not cut. Also know that there is a number of very patriotic people who feel that cutting or ripping the flag in any manner is a desecration of the flag and they will be biting their tongues hard as you do so. (If you do cut the flag, perhaps you may want to consider doing this prior to the ceremony in consideration of those who might find this part traumatic.)
- Only certain organizations are authorized to retire flags.
A number of people believe that only veterans organizations, military organizations, and scouting groups can or should retire flags. However, any organization or individual may retire a flag in a ceremony, or in their backyard by themselves. (Common sense may tell you that if you do it by yourself that maybe you should do it in private so others who happen to see donít mistake your dignified service for unpatriotic desecration.)
- Flag retirements should only be done in a ceremony, only on a separate campfire, the fire should not be used for anything else, the ashes should be buried, etc.
All of these, when explained to others, are good ways to demonstrate your own customs and your respect for our flag. However, they are just that, your customs. There are many different flag retirement ceremonies with differing elements in each. Generally groups and organizations evolve and refine what makes their customs feel patriotic, respectful, and dignified.
- Only people over 18 may handle the flag during flag retirement ceremonies.
- The flag must be retired by burning.
The flag code says "PREFERABLY by burning", meaning that burying, or other method can be done when burning is not feasible. As Scouters though, we should consider the BSA recommendation as described in "Our Flag" which specifies burning. As we generally retire flags during a campfire program, this should not be a big deal. Additionally, a flag retirement by fire is permanent.
Pass along your traditions, but teach respect too!
As we see, the US Flag Code allows just about any type of flag retirement ceremony. That doesnít mean we canít have our traditions. Teach your traditions to your new scouts, and tell them why they are important to you and your unit. Tell your audience, "this is our custom, and other groups may have different customs." It is important to talk to new scouts about what happens during a flag retirement before you start. Many will be witnessing a flag retirement for the first time and, if it is not explained, they may feel that something very wrong is going on.
The key is respect. Respect for our flag, and our country. Respect for others. There are many different flag retirement ceremonies you can conduct, and you could certainly design a ceremony yourself. The only requirement is that you conduct the ceremony in a "dignified" manner. Do this, and most people will be sincerely moved.
Know your audience
If your unit is working jointly with the local American Legion to perform a flag retirement ceremony, then you should find out what their customs are. Likewise you might sometime be working jointly with Girl Scouts, the DAV, or the VFW, or some other group. Find out what their customs are. If their members make up most of your audience for an event, then you should probably consider putting your customs on the back burner this time and honoring them and their customs.
Good luck with your next retirement. Plan carefully and your ceremony will be enjoyed as respectful adoration for our flag, our nation, and everything for which they stand.
1. U.S. Federal Code Title 4, Chapter 1, Section 8(k)
2. "Your Flag", 1986, revised 1994
3. Meaning official documents that Scouts and Scouters are obligated to abide by. For instance, Scouts are not obligated to follow American Legion flag retirement guidelines.
4. "Your Flag," 1984, BSA # LM33188
This article reflects the opinions of Les Donoho of Wentzville, Missouri. This article does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Boy Scouts of America, any Scout Council, District, or Unit. This article may be reprinted in whole by others in the Scouting movement as a teaching tool, but not for re-sale. Undoubtedly someone will say something here is wrong. If so, please cite the printed US law or BSA policy which proves your point. I encourage and seek communication with anyone who can reveal additional official documentation of the US government or the Boy Scouts of America regarding flag retirements. Comments and suggestions should be directed to firstname.lastname@example.org
For many examples of flag retirement ceremonies, visit www.macscouter.com, or www.scouter.com Also visit http://archives.scouter.com/Scouts-L/ and in the search box type "flag retirement ceremony" also visit an Internet search engine and search for the phrase "flag retirement ceremony."
Copyright © 1999, 2002, 2005, 2007 Les Donoho
First Posted: 10/23/99 with permission of author.