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How should Boy Scouts retire the American flag?

Look at the right sleeve of any Cub Scout, Boy Scout, or Venturer, and you’ll see just how important the American Flag is to the Boy Scouts of America. So crucial, in fact, that the flag patch comes already embroidered on every uniform.

Reverence for the flag flows through all aspects of Scouting. Think of every unit meeting or special Scouting ceremony you’ve attended. Each began with a flag ceremony and everyone pledging allegiance to the flag.

This respect for the flag shouldn’t stop there, though. When the flag has reached the end of its life, a meaningful retirement ceremony should follow.

Modern flags made of nylon last much longer than those made when the Scouting program began 100 years ago. Back then, flags were constructed out of cotton or wool. But even the durable nylon or polyester flags used today can wear out.

That’s where a flag retirement ceremony comes in. How do you start? Is it O.K. to burn the flag to retire it? We’ll answer those questions and more after the jump.

Find help:

Many units start the flag retirement process by contacting a local Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) post, Elks Lodge, American Legion post or similar group. Your pack, troop, or crew could conduct a small service project in exchange for the group’s helping to retire your flag.

This option ensures that the ceremony will be held in a respectful manner by people who know what they’re doing.

Give help:

Some troops already conduct flag retirement ceremonies several times a year, so they really don’t need help conducting a proper ceremony.

If that’s the case, these troops should use their knowledge to help others.

In fact, the latest edition of the Boy Scout Handbook says, “As a Good Turn, Scouts can volunteer to help replace faded and tattered flags in their communities and to conduct flag retirement ceremonies for those that have been taken down.”

Burning the flag:

A popular way to retire a worn-out American Flag is by burning it.

Page 76 of the BSA Handbook says, “A national flag that is worn beyond repair may be burned in a fire. The ceremony should be conducted with dignity and respect and the flag burned completely to ashes.”

Though the BSA recognizes burning a flag as an official retirement method, some Scouters choose to retire the flag in other ways. Why? Because unlike the cotton and wool flags made in the early 20th century, today’s flags are made out of petroleum-based materials like nylon. Burning nylon is different from burning cotton or wool.

FlagCenter.com posted this statement about burning nylon flags:

“Burning American flags made of nylon (a petroleum product) creates hazardous gases and wastes resources. … According to DuPont’s ‘Material Safety Data Sheet’ burning nylon produces:

“Hazardous gases / vapors produced in fire are formaldehydes, ammonia, carbon monoxide, cyclopentanone, oxides of nitrogen, traces of hydrogen cyanide, incompletely burned hydrocarbons.”

Recycling the flag:

Instead of burning the flag, recycling old flags has become increasingly common.

At the retirement ceremony, you can cut up your flag using an approved technique that doesn’t cut through the blue star field. When a flag has been cut up, it is no longer officially a flag.

Do a Google search for flag recycling groups. Some offer the service for free, while others request a small donation for time spent and resources used.

The materials from your unit’s worn-out flag will be used to make a new flag for future generations of Americans to enjoy.

Flag retirement ceremony tips:

If you’re looking for a simple, meaningful flag retirement ceremony script, click here. The ceremony can be adapted for use with any method of retirement.

Final thought:

An American Flag is a big part of your pack, troop, or crew for years—or, in some cases, decades. Once its life nears an end, be sure to continue your reverence for this piece of America by giving it a proper send-off.

32 Comments on How should Boy Scouts retire the American flag?

  1. I cringe everytime I hear or see in print “a flag burning ceremony”. Make sure if you advertise or talk to media that you call it a “flag retirement ceremony”!
    Also, does anyone know where giving out the rivets from retired flags came from? I was working at a new camp this last summer and wearing these was seen as cool and comes from them being given as recognition items. I was not a big fan of this practice, I’ve always buried them with the ashes of my small fire used to retire the flag. Thoughts?

    • Dan, I am not positive as to where it orignated at but the sugnifigance of the grommet is to be worn by those that had a major supporting rolling in a Flag Retirment Ceremony or by a Vetern that was envolved in a Flag Retirement Ceremony.

    • Not a fan, either. Someone asked on a forum where the correct/proper place to wear the grommets on their Scout uniform is, the answer is “nowhere.” You could turn it into a neckerchief slide, but that’s about it.
      It’s one thing to be respectful about a retirement, and there is a natural air of awe, but the sentimentality involved in digging grommets out of ashes and then wearing them is over the top in my opinion.

    • Grommets from flags should be recovered from the ashes and may be given to dignitaries present or to say thank you to people present for their service to scouts. I placed some of them in small shadow boxes with a thank you note written on cotton paper and burned around the edges.

  2. The only company that I can locate that recycles flags is American Flag recycling. It seems to me that the BSA could partner with them to significantly reduce pollution across the country. Another “Good Turn for America” ?

  3. michelle wagoner // November 19, 2010 at 12:32 pm // Reply

    Please dont refer to it as burning. It is not what we truly do. Thank you for the ideas of what to do with nylon flags. We retire most of the flags in our area for many different groups/organizations. It is such a neat process. We bury the flag where we retired it, and if no veterans are present we give the gromits to the boys.

  4. Recycling often involves just as much energy consumption and creation of toxic chemicals as burning. The toxicity of burning a single nylon flag is probably no more than that released from your car driving to a place that will accept it for recycling.
    Just retire them in a fire. It is a beautiful ceremony when performed properly, and unlikely to cause any net negative effect in terms of pollution compared to recycling.

  5. We use the “I Am Your Flag ceremony” (Google it) and do a retirement ceremony twice a year. People in our community and our church (the charter organization) know we do these on a schedule, and so we never are wanting for flags to retire. We always burn the flags, having the Webelos scouts do the actual ceremony. It’s a very moving time and a great way to end our fall and spring campfires.

  6. I just returned from the Bear Lake Aquatics Scout Camp, operated by the Great Salt Lake Council. I am the assistant scoutmaster for my church’s Boy Scout troop. Our boys had the rememberable experience of performing a flag retirement ceremony – the term we like to use. None of the boys had previously participated in such a ceremony, and the Senior Patrol Leader who officiated had to be prompted on occasion. Nonetheless, this was truly an experience these boys will likely remember throughout their lives. You could sense the reverence as the boys performing color guard marched in and displayed the colors – taking great pains to ensure they did not cross corners while unfolding and displaying. The Pledge of Allegiance was recited by the remainder of the troop while holding the scout salute, the color guard then placed the center of the flag in the flames, the stripes side was then placed into the flames, and lastly, the star field was folded over the the burning stripes. The salute was held until the flag was reduced to ash. A Scoutmaster’s Minute then followed, touching on what had just occurred. The boys went to bed that evening much quieter than in prior evenings.

  7. Myron Heusinkvelt // May 28, 2012 at 10:18 pm // Reply

    Dear Bryan,

    I would like to give a great “Well Done!!” to all troops, packs and crews that participate in a Flag Retirement Ceremony. I have worked with both the youngest of Tiger Cubs and the oldest of Eagle Scout during the retirement of our Flag, and all show the respect and care befitting it. If your group isn’t currently holding a retirement ceremony please consider it. Too many people will just put the “old flag in the closet” and never take the time to bring it out for retirement. Your community will embrace it and support you. Advertise it, and you will get plenty of flags for a ceremony.

    We hold an annual ceremony, that has grown so much that the local VFW and American Legion are sharing and participating with us during it. What a great way to share living history about our country and the battles she has seen, than to spend time with our Vets after the flames are gone. Our scouts can truly learn what sacrifice others have made for them.

    Our scripts are respectful, and solumn, that reach to touch the very soul of all in attendance. So that all may know that this flag has flown over the Greatest Nation in the World and we are Very proud to call ourselves AMERICANS!

    Sincerly

    Myron Heusinkvelt

    Troop 64 Committee Chairman

    Cornhusker Councel, Nebraska, USA

  8. Ricky Dixon // June 5, 2012 at 11:35 am // Reply

    For my eagle project I am collecting old flags and retiring them. Hopefully I will recieve a lot, but if I do, how do I properly retire so many? I’ve read lots of sites that recommend cutting the flags, but I’ve been to retiring ceremony’s where the flag was brought out, folded, then placed on the fire. Is this still a respectfully way? Also, what type of place should I retire the flags? Would a public park work, or would I need an amphitheater type setting, because I’m sure the some of the people who donate their flags would like to attend. Any ideas would be greatly appreciated.

    • I had read that you should not make it a big public display. Not to say that you should not invite people that appreciate what you are doing. They are always a welcome addition.
      We usually do it a camp. We use a couple of ceremonies that we blended from the internet. The fire has to be pretty hot because we retire approx. 30 at a time. We have a couple cut up. As the ceremony goes the boys feed it into the fire. The rest, folded properly, are put in one at a time until all are consumed. It is so awesome to watch.

      • I forgot to say good luck with your Eagle Project!

  9. Our Troop used to conduct a Flag Retirement Ceremony till we were approached by an area craftperson who uses old flags in his crafts. He takes the old flag and places it behind an old wooden window frame. He dosen’t cut the flag or anything to disgrace our flag. He uses flags of all sizes in his craft.

  10. Jared Olschewski // June 14, 2012 at 9:07 am // Reply

    Bryan,

    You may want to pass in this safety guideline. About five years ago, the Utah State Commander of the VFW taught a class at Roundtable about flag retirement. He told us the flag code had changed for safety reasons. The new recommendation is to fold (as you would normally fold the U.S. flag) any flag of man-made materials before placing it in the fire. There have been many injuries (I’ve personally witnessed a couple of severe burns from flag retirements) from people placing unfolded nylon, and other man-made material, flags into fires. The fire consumes the man-made fabric at a much faster rate and often climbs the flag before it can be lowered by the color guard (especially larger flags). The important thing is to check and make sure the flag is entirely consumed by the fire before putting the fire out.
    It would be terrible if a memorable ceremony was tainted by someone getting injured.

    • Steve Marsh // June 14, 2013 at 9:31 am // Reply

      Jared the fire used to retire the flag is never “put out” it should be allowed to burn out on its own. The ashes should be collected and then buried respectfully. We retire about 200 flags each year on the Saturday closest to Flag Day in our troop. Our former scoutmaster is a retired Forestry Service Fire Commander and he has the ashes taken into the national forest and buried.

      Also please remember if you ever do a flag retirement at a campout, once the flag has been retired in the fire, the fire should not be used for any other purpose, no toasting marshmallows etc.

  11. Our troop collects and retires around 1000 flags each year. 400 are the cemetery markers that we put out and collect for our VFW sponsors. Key to the retirement is that we no longer do this in council fire pits or other camp fire circles. The oil from the flags permanently pollutes the fire circles turning them into brownfields and making them unusable for future scouts to cook from. As mentioned in Bryan’s article the fumes are no fun either. We have 2 50 gallon drum stoves that have been modified for this purpose. They each contain a drain hole where the oil discharges and collects into another metal contain for correct disposal of later. Our drums cookers also contain smoke stacks to keep the fumes away from our scouts. Even with all of this hardware we are able to continue to perform respectable solemn ceremonies to honor the flags and our great country.

  12. A few decades back, we were going through a severe drought, no fires were allowed. My troop decided to bury our flag. We cut the stripes apart and folded it, then chose a spot about 50 feet off a trail in a national forest.

  13. I’m rather surprised that this posting does not cite the fact that Federal law has a section colloquially called “The U. S. Flag Code” that states (among other things) how to properly show reflect for the flag. It is in Title 4 of the United States Code (a.k.a. Federal law). Section 8 of Title 4 can be found at http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/4/8 . Paragraph (k) says:

    (k) 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.

    It seems to me that the Boy Scouts of America should advocate following Federal law. It doesn’t say anything about cutting a flag up so that it’s no longer a flag. Troop 69 of Des Plaines Valley Council has retired numerous nylon flags. If you use a reasonably hot fire and don’t smother it with the flag it will burn completely with minimal smoke or pollution.

  14. With regards to the approved technique that is on the web site linked to in the above post, neither a commercial flag producer (the sponsor of that web site) nor the VFW nor anyone else has any authority to approve a flag retirement ceremony for anyone outside of their own organization. While any unit looking to do this for the first time may find any references useful, they should not consider that any organization has either the right or the authority to approve or disapprove any ceremony that their unit may decide to conduct. The U.S. Flag Code leaves it up to the individuals conducting the ceremony to determine what comprises “destroyed in a dignified way”.

  15. A further word of advice about retiring a flag: if you simply light the flag itself on fire you would certainly end up with a very smoky mess that would be highly polluting. But if you light a campfire and then place the flag on top of it once it is burning (we’ve done it both folding the flag or placing it on top loosely folded) the fire will consume the flag with minimal smoke or residue.

  16. Thank you for this great article. My family is extremely patriotic and cringe whenever we see a tattered flag still flying. My 16 yr old son was extremely disappointed when his Eagle Scout Proposal was denied. He planned on putting together a community wide flag drive where he would collect flags in need of being retired, replace them with new ones and then hold a respectful flag retirement ceremony at our community park. He planned on having active duty military present as well as the Patriot Riders. The Patriot Riders were thrilled with my son’s idea and even offered to drive them to the national cemetery in a procession! My son knows what it means to respect our country and our flag. My husband proudly served in the USMC and is currently a police officer. My son has seen firsthand what it means to be an American and why we respect the flag. I was shocked and disappointed when his project proposal was denied and my was son was told his project was not “big enough” and that he should “build something or repaint lines in a privately owned parking lot)!! Anyway, thank you for the article and reminding people how important it is to retire our flags respectfully. In my opinion the generation if kids today need this reminder!
    Thank you…

    • You should read the segments on Eagle projects in the Guide to Advancement and appeal that bad decision.

  17. Craig Woerpel // June 14, 2013 at 12:07 pm // Reply

    We just a did flag retirement program last week on Mackinac Island in Michigan.The 60 Scouts retired nine flags in a moving program that gives more meaning to the Scout Service Camp on the island. The Scouts raise and lower flags at Fort Mackinac. We train to do it just right. Our claim to fame is President Gerald Ford was an Eagle Scout at the very first camp and the Fort was the site of the first battle of the War of 1812. The post cemetery is also one of four locations in the country where the flag flies at half staff all year-long. https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=578394405526009&set=pcb.578394592192657&type=1&theater

  18. I’m part of Boy Scout Troop 210 Cary, NC and current SPL, we retire flags that have been given to us by neighbors and members of the church we are charted to. We do a simple ceremony of everyone saluting each flag as it goes into the fire. We do this about semi-annually and give the grommets to the Scouts who best demonstrated the the Oath and Law the whole campout. Simple but effective.

  19. I saw my first flag retirement ceremony when I attended the old Scoutmastership Fundamentals course back in 1995. I have been on staff since then for our local council’s Scoutmaster/ASM training courses. Our current Intro to Outdoor Leader Skills course is conducted over an entire camping weekend, which includes a campfire program on Saturday night. This campfire concludes with a flag retirement in which the flag has been cut into pieces beforehand. During the ceremony, the participants are asked to come forward and receive a piece of the flag and place it into the fire, followed by the field of stars being placed on the fire by the staff. The ceremony we use is a composite of several flag retirement ceremonies I have researched. Over the years, I have had many of the new Scout leaders approach me to say how moved they were by the flag retirement, just as I was back in 1995.

  20. stjoemikey // June 15, 2013 at 10:03 pm // Reply

    With my old Pack, we borrowed the idea of stripping Old Glory down to 15 individual sections (13 stripes, blue field, edging with gromets). We did this in total silence as a sign of respect. Then we did the ceremony in which the white stripes are burned, then the red, with the blue field being done before the gromets are placed. We remove the gromets and find a family that has a service member currently stationed, a veteran or a family that has lost as lost someone that we know, and we present them to them. We adopted this ceremony for our Resident Camp and Webelos Weekend, with the tweak that the blue field is placed by any current veteran or active service member in the audience. We of course have a lot of flags for this. I am currently stripping out 20 for our Webelos Weekend.

    My only question is, how do you retire a state flag? I have tried looking it up and cannot find anything and have even tried contacting my Secretary of States office for help. I am thinking you just lay it out over the flame and then carefully fold in the sides and corners. We also have POW/MIA flags that have done their service and need to be retired.

    • ronwfox@aol.com // June 17, 2013 at 2:33 pm // Reply

      The code for showing respect for an American flag is in Federal law, so I would suggest that you refer to the laws of your State to see if there is any provision in there for how to retire a State flag.

      I’ve examined Illinois state law, where I live, and there is no provision for retirement of an Illinois State flag. Apparently as far as they are concerned you can throw it in the trash.

  21. James Lehman, Jr. // July 2, 2013 at 8:44 am // Reply

    Side point: One can purchase a US Flag almost anywhere: drug store, hardware store, big box store, grocery stores. Here’s a challenge for you: Try to find a local seller of your STATE’S flag. Oh, sure, one can buy’em on line ( many a good site for flags), but locally?
    And just try to find a source of your COUNTY flag. Ha!

    Yes, we respectfully burn our used state flags.

  22. I have been retiring flags for some 30 yrs. and I have never said we burn them, they are retired with respect in a flame as prescribed in section 176k of the US Flag code. The ceremony usually starts with one flag laid on a neatly built square fire. As it is lighted Ashes from past campfires and flag retirements are added and taps is played, as the first flag is consumed the next set of flags are added by ones or two until all are retired. during that time scouts around the flag talk about various things such as their country and flag. After the last flag nothing more is added. In the morning the ashes are collected in the troops urn for future Ash ceremonies, and as for the rings, I do collect as many as possible and use them for pins , which are beaded to an American Flag Military type ribbon and given to the scouts and leaders who participated in the Flag retirement. other rings have been used for troop wood banners that have the troop numbers displayed and lacquered to the plaque with a smaller metal label inscribed “The Rings Of Freedom”

  23. Bill Jameson // August 15, 2014 at 2:08 pm // Reply

    One additional means of retiring an old/worn out American flag is to donate it to a local mortuary which has a crematorium for deceased veterans. The flag is placed over the vet’s body with the field of stars over his/her heart and consumed by the same flames with the ashes of both the vet and flag commingled and given to the vet’s family.

  24. Troop Leader // October 29, 2014 at 12:33 am // Reply

    Our 11th grade Girl Scout troop in Southern California is holding a flag retirement ceremony the weekend before Veterans Day this year. We are inviting Veterans, Boy Scouts, Cub Scouts and Girl Scouts to witness the ceremony. We are doing the retirement in a fire pit. The stripes will each be laid on the fire while patriotic words are spoken, with the canton (blue and stars) placed last. We will acknowledge the attending Veterans, include Taps in the program and have a bugler to lead it. I’m hoping that we inspire other troops to do a ceremony like this in the future. I am inspired by reading all of these posts.

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