A U.S. Flag Retirement

Ceremony to Destroy a Worn U.S. Flag

Composed by Stan Pope, a volunteer Scouter for W.D. Boyce Council, BSA, Peoria, IL. Revised 4/20/97.

This ceremony provides an example of, and an explanation of, the etiquette related to destroying a worn U.S. flag. Of all the Flag Burning ceremonies I have seen, this is most elegant in its simplicity and completeness. Group participation is as important as it is moving.

[I am told that the suggestions in the BSA Publication "Your Flag" have changed, and that they no longer include the suggestion to cut the flag into pieces before burning. This may be because some folks felt it to be offensive. Know your group. Use your best judgement. Carry out your ceremony with solemnity and respect.]

[I am also told that some modern synthetic materials emit much noxious smoke when burned. This could detract significantly from the effect of the ceremony. Such flags might better be disposed in more private circumstances. -- SBP.]

Advance Preparation:

Prepare the worn flag by cutting off the supporting edge, and cutting the remaining flag into about 24 to 96 pieces for typical flags. (Pieces about 8" by 12" work well, but be sure to have enough so that everyone in attendance will have at least one.) Cut one of the stars from a piece of the blue field, and cut a bit of a red and a white stripe. Run a length of wire, approximately 12 inches, through the grommets in the standing edge and fasten the ends of the wire together. This will make retrieval of the grommets more reliable after the ceremony. Group five key pieces (the standing edge, star, the blue field and two pieces of stripes) so that they can be located easily, perhaps by fastening them together with a large safety pin. Fold all of the pieces into a properly folded American Flag which will convey the worn flag to the ceremony.

Prepare a cassette tape recording of the National Anthem with about 5 second of blank leader and a minute or two of blank trailer. Have a tape player with the volume set and player positioned so that the tape can be started from your speaking position without fumbling.

Prepare a modest fire lay, such as a council fire approximately 18" to 24" square by 12" to 16" high.

Recruit four or more Color Guards who will carry the flag and who will carefully unfold it during the ceremony. Run through the unfolding ahead of time so that they can do it without dropping pieces of the worn flag. Extra Color Guards will distribute flag pieces to Honor Guards.

The fire should have about a 15 minute head start so that it is blazing well and has formed a good bed of coals. Use lots of light, split wood to accomplish this.


[Leader and Color Guard take place at the side of the ceremony area. Leader, take place behind the fire, facing the audience.]

"United States Federal Law provides that '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.' (36 U.S.C. 176(k))

"According to the BSA publication 'Your Flag', 'When our national flag is worn beyond repair, cut it into small pieces that will burn easily 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.'

"This duty may be carried out less ceremoniously than we will do here, and it need not be more ceremonious. It is, I believe, important that the assembled group be participants rather than spectators. I ask you to serve as Honor Guards for this ceremony. On command, please form a circle around the fire so that the Color Guards are a part of your circle.

"I hope that you will find this ceremony as moving as I did when I first experienced it.

"Color Guard, Advance!" [Color Guard forms a line behind the fire, occupying as much space as they will require to unfold the flag.]

"Honor Guard, Assemble" [Wait until the group completes the circle.]

"Color Guard, Present the Colors!" [Color Guard carefully unfolds the flag. Extra members of the Color Guard may support the center of the flag from behind. The flag is left in approximately level position.]

[When the flag has been unfolded, extra Color Guard members first hand standing edge to leader, then each take a bundle of pieces and distribute them to the Honor Guard, withholding pieces for the Color Guard. Color Guards should fold the Colors. They will place their pieces of flag on the fire after the leader, and then wait, at attention, until the last pieces of flag have been placed on the fire. When the
pieces have been distributed...]

"This flag has flown proudly over our community, but it is now worn beyond repair. [Adjust this sentence as appropriate.] I will place these pieces in different parts of the fire so that each can burn fully and easily. Here is the standing edge [place it in the fire]... a piece of a red stripe... a piece of a white stripe... a piece of the blue field... and one of the stars...

"Honor Guard, two by two, in an orderly manner, starting with the Color Guard, please place your piece of the flag carefully on the fire."

[When the last piece of flag has been placed in the fire and the Honor Guard have returned to their places, start the tape player.]

"Honor Guard, Salute!" [Wait for the Anthem to complete.]

"Two! Color Guard, Dismiss!" [Wait for the Color Guard to withdraw from the circle.]

"Honor Guard, Dismiss!" [Stop the tape player.]

When the flag has been consumed and the fire has been extinguished, remove the grommets for disposal in a manner that they will not be disturbed, e.g. in a lake or river.
Latest update: 4/20/97
Copyright 1997 © by Stan Pope. All rights reserved.