It’s not uncommon in the United States to see businesses, homes, and townships proudly display the American flag – the emblem of our nation and a globally recognized symbol of freedom.
Most people understand that the American flag is a symbol that deserves our utmost respect, and therefore, we should treat it with dignity.
Many rules come with how we hang the flag, how we honor it, and even how we dispose of it.
Today, we’ll take a closer look at how you’re supposed to dispose of an American flag.
When to Retire a U.S. Flag
According to the U.S. flag code, when a flag is “in such condition that it is no longer a fitting emblem for display,” the owner should properly destroy and dispose of it in an honorable and dignified way.
In other words, you should get rid of it once it is in very poor condition and put up a replacement.
U.S. Flag Code also states that, as a sign of respect, an American flag should never touch anything beneath it – including the ground.
In most cases, an accidental drop or touch to the ground won’t require you to retire or destroy the flag.
However, if the flag gets significantly dirty or damaged in the process, then it should be properly disposed of.
Some patriots make the personal choice to retire any flag that touches the ground – even once – as a sign of respect, but the Flag Code does not mandate it.
Who Can Retire an American Flag?
Any individual can retire and dispose of an American flag, so long as they follow proper and appropriate procedures – as outlined below.
Flag disposal ceremonies can happen in both formal settings and in private locations, such as a backyard.
A flag disposal should always be dignified and respectful, but you do not need to be a part of any specific organization or service to do so.
How to Dispose of an American Flag
When a flag becomes weathered, faded, and worn, it’s time to retire the flag and dispose of it respectfully. It’s incredibly disrespectful to toss an old flag in the trash.
Below are a few different options that are considered respectable and acceptable for American flag disposal.
The most preferred way to appropriately dispose of a U.S. flag is to burn it in a burning ceremony.
You can perform these flag retirement ceremonies at your home or any other private location.
Before you burn your flag, it’s important to double-check the materials used to make it. Some materials, like nylon, release dangerous chemicals when burned, making them unburnable.
Ahead of the ceremony, be sure to fold the flag in the customary manner as seen here.
Create your fire, making it large enough to burn the entirety of the flag. You can do this in a fire pit or a burning bucket – so long as it’s big enough to accommodate the flag.
Salute the flag and recite the Pledge of Allegiance before burning it. Some people additionally like to take a brief moment of silence to honor all that the flag represents.
During or following these moments, you may lay the folded flag on the fire. Wait until the flag has been fully taken up by the flames and burns out completely.
Once it’s finished burning, extinguish the fire in a safe manner.
Many people also like to bury the ashes of the old flag.
Be sure to follow any local fire ordinances during this ceremony.
Community Disposal Box
If you don’t have the ability or means to dispose of your flag in a burning ceremony, you can search your local area for a community flag disposal box.
Many organizations accept retired flags and will perform these ceremonies themselves to dispose of them.
Check with your local VFW, American Legions, Girl Scouts, and Boy Scouts, as many of these groups hold flag retirement ceremonies.
Additionally, police and fire stations will also take your retired flags and take care of their respectful disposal.
Groups like the American Legion specifically dispose of collected flags in a large ceremony on Flag Day, which is June 14.
The group presents unserviceable flags to the Legion commanders, who inspect them, and then dips them in kerosene and places them over the fire.
Bury the Flag
You may also bury the flag as an acceptable method of disposing of it.
To do so, find a dignified, solid wooden box to put the flag in. Customarily fold the flag, as listed above, and place the flag into the wooden box.
Dig a hole deep enough to ensure the flag will not be disturbed by animals, weather, or anything else. Place the box into the hole and cover it up.
After burying the flag, you should hold a somber moment of silence. Some may also choose to salute the flag or recite the Pledge of Allegiance.
Be sure to mark the location to avoid accidentally digging it up in the future.
Cut the Flag
While you can both burn and bury an entire flag folded in the customary method, you can also complete both of these actions after cutting the flag.
Not that the American flag should never be torn; it should only ever be cut with scissors.
The proper way to cut the flag is to stretch it over a table large enough to hold it. You should cut the flag twice: once vertically and once horizontally.
Another important note is that you should never cut through the blue star portion.
This component of the flag represents the union of all fifty states, and so no one should render it broken or separated.
After making these cuts, you will have four pieces. This practice makes the flag no longer a serviceable flag, and to some, it’s a more dignified way of disposing of it.
From here, you can either burn the pieces of the flag or bury them. Cutting the flag is a good alternative if you don’t know how to fold it properly.
Recycle the Flag
The final option for proper flag disposal is to recycle the flag. Many organizations accept old flags and use them to make new flags.
Other organizations, such as Stars For Our Troops, use old flags to make embroidered cutouts that are then donated to military families and veterans.
This group specifically cuts out a flag’s stars to send to American soldiers along with a note of support and encouragement.
Caring for Your Flag
All American flags will inevitably see their final days – especially those that are flown outdoors.
Flags will become faded, and wind and rain can tug at the stitches and eventually cause tears and pulls.
But in the meantime, it’s important that you properly care for your flag. Regular maintenance of it will give it the longest life possible.
If you have a nicer flag – i.e., one that’s made from polyester or cotton, or it has a fringe around the edge – you should have a professional clean it.
The best way to avoid making any cleaning mistakes is to take it to a reputable dry cleaner.
You can also clean your flag yourself at home. Outdoor flags in particular accumulate dust, dirt, and debris as they hang outside.
You can machine wash your flag, but be sure to do so on a gentle cycle. Use very mild soap as well. Never let your flag sit long in the washer, as this can cause its colors to run.
It’s best not to dry your flag in the dryer. Instead, lay it on a flat surface (not the floor!) until it is completely dry.
Not all tears indicate that your flag’s lifespan has come to an end. In fact, making minor repairs to your flag can keep it serviceable for much longer.
Keep an eye on your flag and inspect it closely frequently. You might take a close look at it once a week in order to catch any small rips or tears that have started.
If you notice a small tear, take it down for repair immediately. Small tears can quickly grow into large rips, which are much harder to repair.
You can make these small repairs yourself if you’re fairly handy with a needle and thread. Otherwise, take them to your local seamstress or repair shop.
Keep in mind that you can only repair your flag so much before it’s out of size regulation.
If your U.S. flag has a gold fringe around the edges, it may require some extra attention.
The gold fringe must stay dry at all times. Otherwise, the color in it can start to run. The running colors will stain the rest of your flag, and you’ll have to retire it.
When your flag gets wet, or after washing your flag, lay it on a flat table to dry. Be sure to spread the fringe out around the outside so it’s not laying on top of the flag at any point.
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