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.

About Bryan Wendell 2817 Articles
Bryan Wendell, an Eagle Scout, is senior editor of Boys’ Life, Scouting and Eagles’ Call magazines.