How to Properly Retire an American Flag

When and how to retire an American flag respectfully

The United States Flag Code outlines proper flag etiquette for everything from properly folding a flag to flying a flag correctly. It even describes in great detail how to retire an American flag respectfully.

The U.S. Flag code states 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.” Thus, when a flag is torn and tattered beyond repair, it’s time for it to be retired.

Retire an American Flag

In Chicago this past June, there was a televised retirement ceremony for more than 7,000 flags. The ceremony featured members of each branch of the military. Recently Twin Falls Christian Academy principal, Brent Walker, held a ceremony to show students on how to properly retire old American flags. However, these are just two separate events of hundreds across the nation where members are respectfully retiring American flags.

When an American flag becomes worn, faded, torn or soiled, it should be retired and replaced with a new flag. There are several ways to respectfully dispose of the American flag without showing disgrace. The most commom method is burning the torn or tattered flag in a special ceremony. Here are the steps you should follow.

Flag retirement ceremony

The Veterans Department of Affairs suggests starting by folding the flag in a customary triangle manner. Then prepare a large enough fire space to sufficiently burn the flag completely. Next place the flag in the fire and while it burns, individuals at the ceremony should salute or recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Finally, end the ceremony with a moment of silence and bury the ashes once the flag is completely consumed.

Many groups that hold annual or semi-annual flag retirement ceremonies often have their own unique traditions they also follow. But these are the minimum steps everyone should at least follow when they retire an American Flag.

Credit: Magic Valley

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76 Replies to “How to Properly Retire an American Flag

  1. On 16 May 2014 the Friends Of Vets, Cops and Fire Fighters will hold our 6th Flag Retirement Ceremony at the Wilson County Fair Ground, Tennessee. About 300 flags will be retired paying tribute and honoring Veterans, Cops and Fire Fighters who have served or are serving. After the ceremony the flag attachment rings are cleaned and given to Vets, Cops and Fire Fighters to put on their key ring to carry as a reminder that they are thanked for their services.The flags are retired by Veterans,Cops Fire Fighters,Young Marines and Police Cadets.

    1. Thanks for the update! Sounds like a really honorable event! Do you have a press release or website that we can share on our twitter account or on our blog?

      -CVS Flags

  2. What if it’s a nylon flag, do you still burn it? I’ve also been told you cut the flag in three pieces before burning.

    1. Yes you should retire the flag just like the others; however, these flags will sometimes burst into flame before it touches the fire. I do not recommend that children handle these types of flags.

    1. I have retired many flags. I am a Triple palmed EAGLE SCOUT and BROTHERHOOD IN THE ORDER OF THE ARROW. EX US ARMY COMBAT MEDIC VIETNAM ERA. I take this very serious. Many men and women died for my flag. GOD BLESS AMERICA.

      1. I was never in the Boy Scouts, but I’m an Air Force veteran F117 Avionics System Apprentice, Attack Controls 1996-97. Even though I didn’t finish my 4 years, I received a general under honorable conditions discharge. But I take flag etiquette very serious. I had to tell my neighbor who is about 12 or 13 that he better not let it touch the ground when taking it off of snowball stand. He kept asking why, I told him that it’s a disgrace for it to touch the ground. I guess they don’t teach flag etiquette in school anymore, guess they afraid that it’s going to offend someone.

          1. Thank you and those like you that are the ones to carry on the traditions and honors!! God Bless you and God Bless America!!

            1. I was never taught in school (i am 33) how to properly handle an American Flag. My dad taught me since early on and I am passing that respect onto my son who at age 5, already knows that Veterans died for that flag and never to let it touch the ground.

              1. I really hope you don’t tell your son that Veterans died for that flag. You aren’t a Veteran if you died for the flag, a Veteran served under the flag and are honored on Veterans Day. Those who died while serving the flag are not veterans, they are the fallen. Veterans came home from war and generally went on with life. The fallen came home in coffins, if at all, and left behind family. Only the fallen are honored on Memorial Day, just as only Veterans, those who served and came home are honored on Veterans Day.

                1. Actually, all who have served and are currently serving are considered Veterans. A Veteran does not lose their status as a Veteran through death, so the fallen are still Veterans. 8 Year Army Infantry Veteran.

        1. I’m not a boy scout but one i decided to learn how to take care of the flag. But you can only do it in 5/6 grade in my school… So every frickin day I watch these people practically fold the flag in a ball and put it up terribly.

          1. Edit: one day my retired military teacher came to me and my 3 other friends who used to do it and told us to teach those kids some respect and we tried but they just don’t care they will leave it in the rain and fold it backwards and have no clue it’s half mast it’s bad I went to the dean but she didn’t care so I just watch the disrespect this country every morning.

        2. That is exactly why they don’t teach this any more. Offended those that hate it, disrespect it and fail to give it the respect it is due. Noone they know or.care about put their life on the line for the flag. Had they done this and believe in what they were doing would understand more completely those that stand for what this flag represents. Freedom,. even freedom for those who choose to.respect the nation and people it stands for. If this offends any, believe me, I.am not sorry.and will not apologize for this flag.and what it represents to those who served, served or supported it. Did not mean to rant but I love this flag as.the.symbol of all of our FREEDOM. Even for those who claim they dont want it.

          1. Thanks for what you shared. I am disposing 4 today. I will burn them in my chimminea with respect and a pledge of allegiance.

      2. thank god that there are americans that still have some respect for flag like you, not like the underpriveliged poor football players who by the way make millions, I wish you well sir. GOD BLESS YOU AND GOD BLESS AMERICA !!!!!!

    2. I would like a Boy Scouts near 76001 to dispose one flag & also a partial flag missing parts blew away in storm. Plz contact me. Thanks!

  3. The Boyscounts of America, as someone notes above, are taught how to properly retire a flag with honor and respect. The best time to do so is mid-day, when the old flag is flying, and can be lowered, retired, and a new flag raised. Regardless of when, or, presisely how, the important thing is that it is done with respect, honor, and pride. The Stars and Stripes are not tossed in the trash, or heaped into a fire. It is customary to prepare a suitably large fire, as noted above, and 2 people unfold (or relieve it from its post) and dispaly it, fully open, one last time. It is then layed over the fire, in its fully open state, to a bugle of Taps and salute when possible, and tended to until nothing but ash remains. When retiring directly from duty, it is important to relieve the flag with a new one, so that its post is never abandoned.

    1. I was a Girl Scout leader for a few years and no one in our area would come show my troop how to properly dispose of the flag. That is really sad.

        1. I was a Girl Scout and we were taught the proper way to burn a flag and our troop was called on many times to perform a flag burning ceremony. We were very honored to be asked and took it very seriously. This ceremony is not limited to boys/men.

          1. Exactly!!! The ceremony is not limited to boys/men, just like the military is not limited men. Women serve our great country with same pride, honor, courage and commitment that men do. And many woman have given their lives just the same as men for our American Flag. There is no gender in the military, the same with firefighters, and police. Therefore the Girl Scouts should get the same respect to perform this ceremony as does the Boy Scouts.

          1. Very true. Just like the military, firefighters and police are not limited to men only. There are many women (I am one who served my country in the Navy for 22 years) who have served our country with pride, honor, courage and commitment and many women who have given their lives for our country as well. Therefore it is not and should not be limited to only the Boy Scouts to retire our flag. Girls Scouts have that honor also.

      1. You should be able to contact a Boy Scout leader who could show you how to do it. Possibly even participate in one with the Boy Scouts. It can be very moving. As a scout leader for 13 years I have participated in countless flag retirements. People are always dropping them off for us to retire. Girl Scout need to know how to do this also.

      2. I was told by a respected veteran that you can retire a u.s. flag by bringing it to an American legion post.so, that’s what I did. Thank you for your concern.

  4. i was taught years ago; for a private retirement, cut the blue field of stars from the stripes, then it is no longer a flag your burning, Just burn the pieces separately.

  5. As a cub scout leader, I am planning a flag retirement ceremony. The local VFW who donated the flags to be burnt suggested that the flags be held on a pole over the fire and did not like the idea of laying the flag on the fire or cutting the flag into pieces. Are these alternate procedures an acceptable way to retire the colors?

    1. The flag is laid to rest in a fire of honor, not held on a pole like the disgracefull do. It is Not to be thrown into a fire of trash. Wood is the acceptable media. The pledge is to be recited or the National Anthem played. Salute by HONORABLE ONLY Vets. Full Honors include cutting each star out and burned, with the stripes being last.

  6. The Boy Scouts, American Legion, and Veterans of Foreign Wars are all authorized to dispose of worn out flags and most would be happy to accept your old flags. You can also do it yourself in a private ceremony. The flags can either be burned whole or cut in sections, or put in a box and buried. If you burn them, the ashes should be buried afterwards. The key to which ever way you go is to be respectful and remember what the flag(s) you are retiring stood for. I’m the Commander of my VFW post and we retired over 300 flags yesterday, as it was Flag Day.

  7. I have a 6″X8: American Flag, it’s shreded almost in half It’s about 6 years old.. I have it flying on My patio. How do I discad this most Precious Flag of The United States of America. Obama would probly burn it it with His cigarette lighter!

    1. Disrespecting your American president is almost as bad as disrespecting the flag. Especially on a site and topic like this, please keep a sense of honor and respect.

  8. Thank you for this information. I too have a patio flag whose time has come near an end. Though the thought of burning it sickens me, if this is the official and prop way of disposal then we will have a lovely, private ceremony on our property. And then the NEW one will go up, long may she wave!

  9. I took one that should be retired because it has a hole in it and a little bit of mildew on it and I placed it above my headboard. I would like to get the mildew off of it but I’m afraid to use any mildew remover due to it may cause the red to either bleed on the white or it might bleach the red stripes. Is there any way that I can clean it up or just leave it alone.

  10. thanks to all.
    american legion post 81 has been down for many years, now with new membership we are on the move up. we have just put in place a box at our post for old flags. we now want to put in place a flag retireement at our post.
    post adjutant
    allen

  11. I am going to reccomend that the Boy Scout Troop in the area advertise that they are going to have a flag burning ceromony and for people to bring their flags to be retired. This could be done on Flag Day

  12. I just took 23 worn flags from my community to Covina, CA. The city, Rotary Club, businesses and Boy Scout Troop 888 all participate in a weekly event called Flags of Valor. Tonight, the Boy Scout troop will perform the flag retirement ceremony. I could not find anything on-line about flag retirement that was current in my City of Pomona, CA. The 5-day Flags of Valor event includes over 2,000 flags on a sports field of a school commemorating the current and past service of community veterans.

  13. We are having a flag burning ceremony to retire a flag at our home. My son is in the Army National Guard and he and I both know the importance for the ceremony. What are the steps in this ceremony?

  14. When an American flag becomes old and worn it is our duty to retire it with dignity.
    Veterans groups across the nation collect them and will have a flag burning ceremony to dispose of it. No part of the flag is to remain.
    This said, as a Girl Scout Leader we conducted ceremonies in which respectively the flags were dismantled stripe by stipe.
    A reading to explain the significance to the colors and history of the stripes. During the reading each set of stripes are placed in the fire ring.
    The square of stars is laid with respect by supporting each corner and laying it out over the fire. This displays the stars as the last thing to fade. During this time TAPS is played or sung.
    This is to be done with reverence and respect.
    Not by angry vicious mobs.

  15. Will someone please inform Donald TRUMP that burning the flag is the proper way to retire it. Perhaps he needs to add the caviat of Respectful burning! Don’t want to see a lot of Boy Scouts confused and fearful of going to jail!j

  16. Donald Trump tweeted this morning:

    Nobody should be allowed to burn the American flag – if they do, there must be consequences – perhaps loss of citizenship or year in jail!

    — Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 29, 2016

  17. I am the asst manager of an rv park. We just replaced an American flag that i have been told is at least 15 years old. It is an indoor flag. Great shape overall but parts are faded. I am going to ask members of our park, most are veterans to particiate in a retirement ceremony. A few questions, i know that they say June 14 on Flag Day is the most appropriate. Can it be done on Veterans Day? We are a seasonal resort and they all go home for the summer. Secondly, i was watching a video of a military ceremony in which they cut each stripe, after cutting the blue field is this properand can civilians do this?? Thirdly, we had an eagle on top of the flagpole, its wing broke off, is there anything in the code to n the proper way to dispose of it? Lastly, where would be a proper place to bury the ashes of the flag? Thank you

    1. This information from The US flag code (to view the full code follow this link) https://www.collinsflags.com/flagCodeExample.pdf if we are understanding this correctly no date is specified for when you can retire the US flag.
      We found no information concerning where the ashes could be buried.
      We found nothing in the code relative to disposing of the ornament. We hope this helps.

      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.37
      The act is silent on procedures for burning a flag. It would seem that any
      procedure which is in good taste and shows no disrespect to the flag would be
      appropriate. The Flag Protection Act of 1989,38 struck down albeit on grounds
      unrelated to this specific point,39 prohibited inter alia “knowingly” burning of a flag
      of the United States, but excepted from prohibition “any conduct consisting of
      disposal of a flag when it has become worn or soiled.”

  18. I found a small handheld type flag under my house that is extremely soiled. Should I dispose of this flag in the same way you would dispose of larger flags? To me, an American flag is an American flag no matter its size; however, when I talked to a couple of other people about it, they almost acted as though it didn’t matter since it was not a regular size flag.

  19. How would you recommend retiring a flag that is very large (25’x40′)? Would it be considered ok to have it in the back of a truck during the disassembly process?

    1. You could do as it’s described above in the Article by properly folding the flag in a triangle . Or you could do it like i had when i was in Boy Scouts when we retired a really large flag . The camp counselors had cut the 13 Red & White Stripes into individual stripes then cut each one into 2-3 inch pieces , then cut each Star into individual squares, so that each square had a star . Making it so that each scout would have a piece to participate in the ceremony .

      But you could just cut each red & white stripe then retire each stripe as a whole .
      (if it’s really long, folding the stripes so that they fit in the fire so it burns properly, all at once) but retiring each stripe individually as 13 pieces & cut each star into individual squares
      (1 star ,1 square) 50 squares total. so that Each Star is representing a state , then when retiring the pieces of flag by only placing one piece in at a time .only placing the next piece of flag in the fire , After the last piece has been fully retired. Doing each stripe & Star That way . You can make it a great ceremony, by making it symbolic like we had in our BoyScout ceremony by honoring each part of the flag as the 13 original colonies & 50 states that make up the United states of America . showing respect & honoring each part individually, but at the same time as a whole . Representing what each colony & state has ultimately made up & stands for
      ” The United states of America” &
      “the United States Flag”

      It’s a great way to have a really nice ceremony with friends & family. Reciting the pledge of Allegiance At the beginning then speaking about what each part of the flag means as you retire it . naming 1 state as you retire a star for all 50 stars. ultimately naming off all 50 states. (Great for kids) or just remaining silent through out the retirement of the flag & once finished having a moment for silence for a couple minutes at the end . But that’s just an idea that’s mostly how our ceremony went when we retired a large flag at BoyScout Camp when I was younger . (Except we didn’t name off the states as retired the flag) we all remained quite though out the while retirement ceremony after we saluted the flag for it’s last time & recited the Pledge of Allegiance. . If you’d like to read my story it’s at the bottom of how the whole ceremony went & my feelings of the ceremony .. but i wish you the best of luck Sir in retiring your flag if you haven’t done so already , if not i hope you find a fitting way to properly retire your flag . As God knows it’s deserves it .

      God Bless us All , our Constitution , our 2nd Amendment , the Men & women of the Armed services that serve today & in the past that have given there lives for our freedom & The United States of America! Home to the free & the Land of the Brave !

  20. When I was younger , as a Boy Scout . Our Troop was at camp Whitsett or camp Three falls , I’m not quite sure which one it was . But during the week camping Trip we where able to experience a very nice Flag retirement ceremony . It was done a bit differently then explained in the Article above . The Camp counselors had torn or cut the flag, separating each of the 13 Red & White Stripes into individual sections then cut each stripe into multiple sections of 2-3 inch squares & each Star was cut into a square so that there was only 1 star in each cut out square . After the night of camp fire activities of jokes ,songs , skits & storys for the evening we began the ceremony by saluting & reciting the pledge of Allegiance to the flag one last time before it was to be retired . After each scout, scout master & counselor that was at attendance of the Camp fire was given a small section of the flag . While remaining silent each person placed there section of flag into the fire . After the counselors & scout masters had confirmed that each person had placed there section of flag in the fire . They asked everyone to bow there’s heads for a moment of silence for a couple of minutes . Afterwards all scouts where advised to maintain being silence & to go ahead & walk back to there camp sites . The ceremoney was a extremely amazing & spiritual moment for me & my Grandfather ( Assistant Scout Master) . As hundreds of scouts Continued too remain quite as we all walked about a mile back to camp sites . It’s a moment that I’ll never forget . My words now, just can’t fully explain the feeling & emotions that where felt that evening by myself & I’m sure by every single scout , Scout masters & counselor that had attended that evening . It was fantastic !

  21. I was told by a veteran of great respect,that you can retire a U.S. flag by bringing it to an American legion post. That’s what I did. Thanks for your important question.

  22. I was told by a respected Army veteran that you can retire a U. S. Flag at an American legion post. That’s what I did. Thank you for important question.

  23. I have a U.S. flag that flew at a military post in Munich, Germany and was removed in 1961 to my knowledge. I was stationed in New Ulm, Germany between 80 and 82. It is in good condition considering but my question is,,, if someone was to retire such a flag ? How would be the best honorable way to do so ? Also as i was informed that this flag was still flying proud after Hitler was no longer alive ? Just a question about respect on how to honor this U.S. flag in case someone does have a flag like I do. Thank you. Sgt. P. Jaques

    1. Paul, It is important to note that NO U.S. flag ever becomes obsolete. Every flag that has been a legal US flag at any time is still a legal US flag and may be flown at any time. If you are wanting to retire the flag, the boy scouts and other civil organizations such as your American Legion, or VFW will generally accept them and do retirement ceremonies. Etiquette also states that you can retire your flag through a burning ceremony of your own as long as it is done in a dignified and respectful manner.

  24. I have a small American flag that is faded and I have replaced it with another small flag. Since these flags arr not the bigger ones that sit on a flag pole, is the procedure for retirement the same as a big flag?

    1. A U.S. flag should be retired properly no matter what size. The proper disposal is a respectful burning, or simply drop it off at your local VFW and they will properly retire your flag for you.

  25. An individual told me that when a flag is to be retired that the triangle fold starts with the stars When finished you only see red and whit stripes. Supposedly this method of folding the flag I to distinguish it as a flag that is to be retired.

    1. To the best of our knowledge, there is no occasion for folding the flag and leaving the stripes showing. We are not aware of an indicator from folding that a flag is ready to be retired. The appearance of the flag itself typically decides when it is time to retire a flag.

  26. Can someone tell me or send a reference? When a flag comes down for the last time and going to be retired is it still folded into a triangle or is it folded into a square until such time as it can be properly disposed of?

    1. Hi Clinton, the flag retirement ceremony is most often carried out by our American Legion, VFW, or Boy Scouts. The scouts’ process can be found here: http://usscouts.org/usscouts/ceremony/flagret2.asp and the American Legions process can be found here: https://www.legion.org/flag/ceremony. However, many people retire their own flags by burning them in a dignified manner. The US 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.37 The act is silent on procedures for burning a flag. It would seem that any procedure which is in good taste and shows no disrespect to the flag would be appropriate. The Flag Protection Act of 1989,38 struck down albeit on grounds unrelated to this specific point,39 prohibited inter alia “knowingly” burning of a flag of the United States, but excepted from prohibition “any conduct consisting of disposal of a flag when it has become worn or soiled.”

  27. I am with the Civil Air Patrol and I thought that you had to cut the flag into the stripes and the union and burn the stripes first one by one and lastly the union. Is this correct/

    1. Hi Calvin, the flag retirement ceremony is most often carried out by our American Legion, VFW, or Boy Scouts. We believe the Scouts practice the cutting of the stripes and field with regard to each as they are retired. The flag code does not distinguish this as a requirement. Many people retire their own flags by burning them in a dignified manner and by code that is acceptable. The process for the Scouts can be found here: http://usscouts.org/usscouts/ceremony/flagret2.asp and the process for the American Legion can be found here: https://www.legion.org/flag/ceremony

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