(For more information on Flag protocol, see 36 U.S.C. CHAPTER 10)
American Flag Etiquette
Federal law stipulates many aspects of flag etiquette. The section of law dealing with American Flag etiquette is generally referred to as the Flag Code. Some general guidelines from the Flag Code answer many of the most common questions:
The flag should be lighted at all times, either by sunlight or by an appropriate light source.
The flag should be flown in fair weather, unless the flag is designed for inclement weather use.
The flag should never be dipped to any person or thing. It is flown upside down only as a distress signal.
The flag should not be used for any decoration in general. Bunting of blue, white and red stripes is available for these purposes. The blue stripe of the bunting should be on the top.
The flag should never be used for any advertising purpose. It should not be embroidered, printed or otherwise impressed on such articles as cushions, handkerchiefs, napkins, boxes, or anything intended to be discarded after temporary use. Advertising signs should not be attached to the staff or halyard.
The flag should not be used as part of a costume or athletic uniform, except that a flag patch may be used on the uniform of military personnel, fireman, policeman and members of patriotic organizations.
The flag should never have any mark, insignia, letter, word, number, figure, or drawing of any kind placed on it, or attached to it.
The flag should never be used for receiving, holding, carrying, or delivering anything.
When the flag is lowered, no part of it should touch the ground or any other object; it should be received by waiting hands and arms. To store the flag it should be folded neatly and ceremoniously.
The flag should be cleaned and mended when necessary.
When a flag is so worn it is no longer fit to serve as a symbol of our country, it should be destroyed by burning in a dignified manner.
Read a more comprehensive set of flag etiquette rules for display of the American Flag.
American Flag Protocol — Rules for Display of the American Flag
Over the Middle of the Street
It should be suspended vertically with the union to the north in an east and west street or to the east in a north and south street.
Flown at Half-staff
To set a flag at half-staff or half-mast, the flag should be first hoisted to the peak for an instant and then lowered to the half-staff position. When lowering the flag for the day, it should again be raised to the peak before it is lowered and removed. “Half-staff” or “half-mast” means lowering the flag to one-half the distance between the top and bottom of the staff. In a case where the flag is fixed to a horizontal or angled pole (often in residential situations) and cannot be flown at half staff, it is proper to attach two black ribbons to the end of the pole (not the flag) to show respect. Crepe streamers may be affixed to spear heads or flagstaffs in a parade only by order of the President of the United States.
Flown on the Same Halyard with Non-Nation Flags
The American Flag should always be at the peak. When the flags are flown from adjacent staffs, the flag of the United States should be hoisted first and lowered last. No such flag or pennant may be placed above the flag of the United States or to the right of the flag of the United States.
Suspended Over a Sidewalk
The flag may be suspended from a rope extending from a house to a pole at the edge of the sidewalk, the flag should be hoisted out, union first, from the building.
From a Staff Projecting Horizontally or at an Angle
The flag may be projected from the window sill, balcony, or front of a building, with the union of the flag placed at the peak of the staff unless the flag is at half-staff.
In a Parade with Other Flags
The flag, when carried in a procession with another flag, or flags, should be either on the marching right; that is, the flag’s own right, or, if there is a line of other flags, in front of the center of that line.
With Non-National Flags
The flag of the United States of America should be at the center and at the highest point of the group when a number of flags of States or localities or pennants of societies are grouped and displayed from staffs.
With Other National Flags
When flags of two or more nations are displayed, they are to be flown from separate staffs of the same height. The flags should be of approximately equal size. International usage forbids the display of the flag of one nation above that of another nation in time of peace.
With Another Flag Against a Wall from Crossed Staffs
Should be on the right, the flag’s own right which is the viewer’s left, and its staff should be in front of the staff of the other flag.
From a Staff in a Church or Public Auditorium on a Podium
The flag of the United States of America should hold the position of superior prominence, in advance of the audience, and in the position of honor at the clergyman’s or speaker’s right as he faces the audience. Any other flag so displayed should be placed on the left of the clergyman or speaker (to the right of the audience).
From a Staff in a Church or Public Auditorium off the Podium
Custom and not the flag code hold that the flag of the United States of America should hold the position of superior prominence as part of the audience, in the position of honor at the audience’s right.
Used to Cover a Casket
It should be so placed that the union is at the head and over the left shoulder. The flag should not be lowered into the grave or allowed to touch the ground.
Other than being Flown from a Staff
The flag should be displayed flat, whether indoors or out. When displayed either horizontally or vertically against a wall, the union should be uppermost and to the flag’s own right, that is, to the observer’s left. When displayed in a window it should be displayed in the same way, that is with the union or blue field to the left of the observer in the street. When festoons, rosettes or drapings are desired, bunting of blue, white and red should be used, but never the flag.
The U.S. Flag Code states, “When a flag has served its useful purpose, it should be destroyed, preferably by burning.” For individual citizens, small groups, or organizations, this should be done discreetly so the act of destruction is not perceived as a protest or desecration. The ceremony should be respectful and relatively private, consisting of invited guests only. Many American Legion Posts conduct “Disposal of Unserviceable Flag Ceremonies” on 14 June, Flag Day. In addition to the American Legion, all other major veterans’ organizations have their own ceremonies for flag retirement. Likewise, the Girl Scouts and the Boy Scouts of America also perform ceremonies. While there is no single standard procedure to which one may refer when confronted with the matter of retiring the flag, below are two examples of guidelines for the conduct of flag-disposal ceremonies.
General Flag Retirement Ceremony
An empty chair may be included as a “Place of Honor” for those lovers of Old Glory who have passed on or are too infirm to attend.
Include a chaplain or prayer per your tradition.
Ceremony leader: “We are gathered here to destroy these flags that have been deemed no longer serviceable. It is proclaimed that each of these flags has served well. These flags have inspired those who desired the taste of freedom and have represented hope to those oppressed by tyranny and terror. These flags have welcomed any and all in the name of liberty.”
“The American flag flies free to the wind. The American flag flies above residential porches, camp sites, small businesses, corporate offices, hospitals, schools, military and naval bases, government buildings and nonprofit organizations. The American flag is the most displayed and recognized banner in the world. These flags serve as constant reminders to all of us that we live in a country where our freedom has been deeply purchased by blood, sweat, tears and ultimate sacrifice. We must not forsake what those in the service to this flag, and their families, have forfeited.”
“We have here this day an empty Place of Honor for those who cannot attend due to devastating injury, infirmity and death. Please direct your attention to the Place of Honor as I read today’s names of (use number) of those patriots. In your mind’s eye see these people and think about them.”
“To all who shall see these presents, greeting. Know ye that these flags have served well and honorably. Their stars and stripes have been loosed to the winds of freedom and have basked in the light of liberty.”
Ceremony leader: “Please rise.”
Those that can in the audience rise
“Please join me to recite the Pledge of Allegiance:” (PAUSE)
All: “‘I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible with liberty and justice for all.’”
STAND AT EASE
Ceremony leader: “You may be seated.”
“The U.S. Flag Code states, ‘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.’”
(OPTIONAL: Dedicate this ceremony to an individual American who loved the flag and read previously obtained info about the honoree.)
Ceremony leader: “Please rise.”
Staff member inserts one properly folded flag into the incinerator or fire.
Sing or recite the first stanza of “God Bless America”
All: “‘While the storm clouds gather far across the sea,
Let us swear allegiance to a land that’s free,
Let us all be grateful for a land so fair,
As we raise our voices in a solemn prayer.’”
All: “‘God bless America,
Land that I love.
Stand beside her, and guide her
Thru the night with a light from above.
From the mountains, to the prairies,
To the oceans, white with foam
God bless America, my home sweet home.’”
STAND AT EASE
Ceremony leader: “Ladies and gentlemen, this concludes the ceremony. God bless America.”
When guests have departed, staff members and volunteers burn the remaining flags.
Alternate Flag Retirement Ceremony 1
The American flag should be folded and the Troop is assembled in parallel line formation. A five-member retirement crew is assembled in line in front of the Troop. An additional person (the cutter) is assembled beside them, with scissors.
Ceremony leader: “In a few moments, we will be retiring the flag of the United States of America. This is a solemn ceremony, and we ask that you all show the proper respect for the flag and those who have fought so hard for it and all it represents. Please stand remain quiet until the ceremony is finished.”
“The following is a direct quotation from the beginning of Title 36, Section 176, of the laws of the United States of America: ‘No disrespect should be shown the flag of the United States of America.’ Furthermore, Paragraph K of Title 36, Section 176 states, ‘The Flag, when it is in such condition that it is no longer a fitting emblem for display, should be destroyed in a dignified manner, preferably by burning.’”
We will now retire the flag.
The five-member retirement crew will hold the flag before and after it is cut. (In the event of a very oversized flag, Scouts and leaders may be asked to come forth from the assembly to help hold the flag.) One retirement crew member should be holding each corner of the flag, with the fifth person following the cutter to receive the 13th stripe when it is cut.
Cutting and folding order is as follows:
- 1. First cut: the 13th stripe, cutting from the grommet end, and it is rolled as it is cut.
- 2. Second cut: from the top and along the edge of the blue field to the bottom of the flag. (The cutter may want to continue this cut and make a small cut in the stripe section to show where the side of the blue field ended.)
- 3. Third cut: the blue field away from the stripes below it.
- 4. First fold: the blue field is folded into a triangle (cutter assists).
- 5. Second fold: the 13th stripe section is folded into a square (cutter assists, crew members holding the sections then remain in place.)
- 6. Fourth cut: the large stripe section along the stripe where the bottom of the blue field ended.
- 7. Third fold: the square stripe section is folded into a square.
- 8. Fifth cut: from the small cut in the large stripe section, through the stripes.
- 9. Fourth and fifth folds: the final two square stripe sections
- 10. Captain calls the retirement crew to face appropriate direction
Before proceeding to the fire, the retirement crew should arrange in the following flag section order:
- 1. 13th stripe
- 2. lower part of all stripe section
- 3. upper part of all stripe section
- 4. stripe section below blue field
- 5. blue field
At the fire, the retirement crew falls into a single file line facing the audience in the same order.
If using music, start music, and as the music begins, the ceremony leader begins to speak. (Music suggested is the song “An Epithaph To War” from the James Horner soundtrack for the motion picture “Glory”)
Ceremony leader: “Our flag is the symbol of our country. Have you ever stopped to think what the flag really means?”
“The blue in our flag stands for the valor with which our ancestors fought and died in the many battles that have been fought for our country and all for which it stands.”
“The white stands for the purity in all of our hearts. It also represents the honor that each of us should show in our everyday lives.”
“The red stands for all of the men and women who have died in the service of our country, both as members of the armed forces, and as everyday citizens.”
“Our flag has been carried into every battle into which there have been United States citizens, from the American Revolution to the Civil War, to World War I and World War II, to the Korean Conflict, from Vietnam to Desert Storm and the fight for freedom in the Middle East. It has flown over some battles that were never declared, such as Beirut where the Marine barracks were blown up by terrorists. In New York City it flew over ruins from a cowardly attack. In all of these, we, the American People, have stayed true to the values that the flag represents. We should always value the sacrifices that have been made for our flag and the country that it represents.”
“We have an old friend here who has fulfilled his duty to our country. He has become worn and tattered and we are here (today or tonight) to retire him with honor. We shouldn’t be sad about the retirement of our friend. We are not burning him in anger, our friend can continue to serve in our thoughts.”
Ceremony leader: “Would all the Veterans in the audience please come down and form a line behind the flag?”
Veterans come and stand behind the flag retirement crew. When all are in place, the ceremony leader continues.
Ceremony leader: “I now call the holder of the 13th stripe to place the 13th stripe, which stands for the 13th colony on the coast of the Atlantic in 1776, now the State of Georgia, on the fire.”
The crew member with the 13th stripe steps out from the line, walks to the fire, places the stripe on the fire and salutes it (salute should be a fast up and slow down); then returning to the line.
Ceremony leader: “I now call the holders of the other four sections of the flag to place the sections, in order, on the fire.”
The crew members all follow suit in the same order which will result in the blue field being the last section placed on the fire, each crew member saluting as when placing each piece on the fire. As the last crew member, with the blue field, places the last section on the fire, the ceremony leader calls the entire assembly to salute.
Ceremony leader: “Scouts! Salute!”
As the last section, the blue field, is placed on the fire, taps is played and the salute continues for the duration. At the end of taps, the ceremony leader calls everyone to stand down. The crew members returns to their places in the retirement line.
Ceremony leader: “Ready! Tu!”
“Veterans, we thank you for joining us in our salute, you may now return to your places. We also thank the retirement crew for their assistance and you may return to your places.”
Alternate Flag Retirement Ceremony 2
Ceremony leader: “Title 36, Section 176, of the United States Code states: ‘No disrespect should be shown to the flag of the United States of America;’ Furthermore, Paragraph (K) of this same Title 36, Section 176, states: ‘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 BSA publication ‘Our Flag’ 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.’”“
The flag(s) we retire tonight has served us well, but due to its condition it is no longer suitable for display. A fresh new flag now flies in its place, to carry on the honor and dignity of ‘Old Glory’ which flew many years ago.
Tonight we will retire this great symbol of freedom throughout the world. Please remain silent until directed otherwise. Absolute dignity must be maintained throughout the entire ceremony!”
To the burial fire we add …
- Redwood to remind us of the red-blooded Americans who fought and died to build our nation under this flag.
- Oak for rugged strength that carried the flag across this nation and today reaches for the stars.
- Cedar to protect us from pestilence and corruption and preserve our American way of life.
- Walnut to remind us of the rich soil, the beautiful countryside and the fruitful brotherhood founded by our ancestors.“
Ceremony leader to audience: "Please stand.”
Ceremony leader: “Color guard present the colors to be retired.”
Color Guard: Prepare to place flag in the fire: Flag should be carried waist high, parallel to the ground by four to six Scouts in full class A uniform, one on each corner and one on each long side if necessary. Stop just in front of the fire.
Ceremony leader to audience: “Scout Salute, or if you are out of uniform place your hand over your heart.”
Color Guard: Walk the flag into the middle of the fire. Lower the flag into the fire, slow enough that it starts burning, but fast enough that the flames to not burn the carriers hands. Flip the corners of the flag into the fire to be burned.
Ceremony leader: “We are drawn here together in the sight of God to pay our last respects to this symbol of our great nation, America, the land of the free and the home of the brave. Please join with me in reciting the pledge of allegiance.”
All: “‘I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible with liberty and justice for all.’”
Ceremony leader: “Tu!”
Divide group into 3 parts to sing “America, America.”
How can I tell you how I feel.
You have given me many treasures.
I love you so…’”
Stagger each part. (The approach to performing the song can change with the group. You may decide to invite the attendees to sing one stanza.)
Dismiss 1st section from the campfire humming the song while they leave. The other two sections continue singing the words.
Next, dismiss 2nd section from the campfire humming the song while they leave. The last section continues singing the words.
Finally, dismiss last section from the campfire humming the song while they leave.
History of the American Flag
For more than 200 years, the American flag has been the symbol of our nation’s strength and unity. It’s been a source of pride and inspiration for millions of citizens. And it has been a prominent icon in our national history. Here are the highlights of its unique past.
On January 1, 1776, the Continental Army was reorganized in accordance with a Congressional resolution which placed American forces under George Washington’s control. On that New Year’s Day the Continental Army was laying siege to Boston which had been taken over by the British Army. Washington ordered the Grand Union flag hoisted above his base at Prospect Hill. It had 13 alternate red and white stripes and the British Union Jack in the upper left-hand corner (the canton).
In May of 1776, Betsy Ross reported that she sewed the first American flag.
On June 14, 1777, in order to establish an official flag for the new nation, the Continental Congress passed the first Flag Act: “Resolved, That the flag of the United States be made of thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new Constellation.”
Between 1777 and 1960, Congress passed several acts that changed the shape, design and arrangement of the flag and allowed for additional stars and stripes to be added to reflect the admission of each new state.
Act of January 13, 1794 - provided for 15 stripes and 15 stars after May 1795.
Act of April 4, 1818 - provided for 13 stripes and one star for each state, to be added to the flag on the 4th of July following the admission of each new state, signed by President Monroe.
Executive Order of President Taft dated June 24, 1912 - established proportions of the flag and provided for arrangement of the stars in six horizontal rows of eight each, a single point of each star to be upward.
Executive Order of President Eisenhower dated January 3, 1959 - provided for the arrangement of the stars in seven rows of seven stars each, staggered horizontally and vertically.
Executive Order of President Eisenhower dated August 21, 1959 - provided for the arrangement of the stars in nine rows of stars staggered horizontally and eleven rows of stars staggered vertically.
Today the flag consists of thirteen horizontal stripes, seven red alternating with 6 white. The stripes represent the original 13 colonies, the stars represent the 50 states of the Union. The colors of the flag are symbolic as well: Red symbolizes Hardiness and Valor, White symbolizes Purity and Innocence and Blue represents Vigilance, Perseverance and Justice.
Note: For an excellent resource on nation’s founding, read Mark Alexander’s essay on American Liberty. You can also purchase our highly-acclaimed pocket size Patriot Primers on American Liberty in bulk for distribution to students, grassroots organizations, civic clubs, political gatherings, military and public service personnel, professional associations and others.
Semper Vigilans Fortis Paratus et Fidelis
Pro Deo et Libertate — 1776
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