Showing Respect to the Emblem of Our Country

It has waved over our patriots as they fought for our independence and our unity. It’s been carried by our armed forces into battle across the globe and raised over Iwo Jima. And it’s a sign of hope and freedom to those seeking justice, either in their homeland or when they immigrate here.  The American flag, Old Glory, or the Stars and Stripes, is not just a symbol of our nation but is also who we are and what we stand for.

Ron Current

This post is about two ceremonies that pay patriotic honor to our national emblem: the Unserviceable Flag Ceremony and the meaning of the Flag’s 13 folds.

The “Flag Code”

The origins of all the rules and standards relating to the American Flag began in 1923. To help in developing a national standard for civilian flag courtesy, a National Flag Conference was called to meet in Washington D.C. on June 14-15 of that year.

Art taken from Amazon

Attending this conference were representatives from more than 60 patriotic, fraternal, civic, and military organizations. Some of which were: the American Legion, Daughters of the American Revolution, the Boy Scouts, Knights of Columbus, and the American Library Association. 

Those set of rules and standards that came from this conference is what’s popularly known as the “Flag Code.” The Flag Code has helped patriotic organizations by giving them a single set of rules and ceremonies that relate to the Flag of the United States of America.

In 1942, the 77th Congress of the United States formally adopted the Flag Code, making it public law. Even though this code has been amended many times it still provides a guide on how to display the Flag and the ceremonies related to it.

The Unserviceable Flag Ceremony: the Proper Way to Dispose of an American Flag

Presenting the Flags for inspection. Photo by author from the 2021 Knights of Columbus flag retirement ceremony.

One of the ceremonies presented in the Flag Code is the proper way to dispose of an “unserviceable” American Flag. This ceremony is also sometimes referred to as a “Flag Retirement.”

Although the Flag Code recommends that this ceremony takes place on “Flag Day,” it doesn’t demand that it does. However, the ceremony itself is scripted out in the Flag Code. Although originally written for Veterans groups, the Code does allow for other patriotic organizations to modify some of its text to fit their own organization’s structure.

Boy Scouts carry the Flags to be burned past the Knights of Columbus honor guard. Photo by Author.

The ceremony begins with the conducting organization’s honor guard forming two parallel columns, which face each other. At one end of these columns are three of the organization’s commanders or officers and at the other end a small fire, usually in a barrel.

Next, the organization’s Sergeant-of-Arms or flag bearer carries a flag that represents all of the flags that are to be retired and disposed of. In the ceremony, the flag bearer will present this flag to the three officers for inspection and recommendation for disposal.

The Meaning of the 13 Folds of the United States Flag

Members of the VFW folding the flag as they state the meaning behind each of the folds. Photo by author.

We’ve all witnessed honor guards at military funerals folding the American Flag, which had covered the casket. How solemn and attentive these guards are as they fold the flag. Each fold and each move reflects respect and honor to our nation’s most sacred symbol.

Flag etiquette states that each time a flag is to be stored or presented during a ceremony it must be folded in a specific way. To begin, the Flag is folded in half twice lengthwise. Then from the opposite end from the field of blue, a taut triangular fold is made across the Flag. These triangular folds are continually made until the Flag forms a “pillow,” with the field of blue on the outside. In his book, The Flag of the United States, James Moss describes the folding of the flag as,

“…folded into the shape of the tri-cornered hat, reminiscent of the hats worn by the soldiers who fought in the War of the Revolution and won American Independence. In folding the red and white stripes are finally wrapped into the blue, as the light of day vanishes into darkness of the night.”

James Moss, from his book “The Flag of the United States, page 105

The folding of the American Flag is a powerful and dignified ceremony to watch.

But what you may not know is that there are 13 folds in the ceremony and that each fold has a meaning. While the actual way the Flag is folded goes back to the beginnings of our nation, the meaning of these folds has varied from different groups and organizations. Here’s what the 13 folds mean according to the National Flag Foundation:

  1. The first fold of our flag is a symbol of life.
  2. The second fold signifies our belief in eternal life.
  3. The third fold is made in honor and tribute of the veteran departing our ranks, and who gave a portion of his or her life for the defense of our country to attain peace.
  4. The fourth fold exemplifies our weaker nature as citizens trusting in God; it is to Him we turn for His divine guidance.
  5. The fifth fold is an acknowledgement to our country, for in the words of Stephen Decatur, “Our country, in dealign with other countries, may she always be right, but it is still our country, right or wrong.”
  6. The sixth fold is for where our hearts lie. It is with our heart that we 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.
  7. The seventh fold is a tribute to our armed forces, for it is through the armed forces that we protect our country and our flag against all enemies.
  8. The eighth fold is a tribute to the one who entered into the valley of the shadow of death, that we might see the light of day, and to honor our mother, for whom it flies on Mother’s Day.
  9. The ninth fold is an honor to womanhood, for it has been through their faith, love, loyalty, and devotion that the character of men and women who have made this country great have been molded.
  10. The 10th fold is a tribute to father, for he, too, has given his sons and daughters for the defense of our country since he or she was first-born.
  11. The 11th fold, in the eyes of Hebrew citizens, represents the lower portion of the seal of King David and King Solomon and glorifies, in their eyes, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
  12. The 12th fold, in the eyes of a Christian citizen, represents an emblem of eternity and glorifies, in their eyes, God the Father, the Son, and Holy Ghost.
  13. The last fold, when the flag is completely folded, the stars are uppermost, reminding us of our national motto, “In God We Trust.”

Sources Used:

“Flag Folding Facts.” Annin Flagmakers, Annin Flagmakers , Accessed 5 Sept. 2021.

The National Flag Foundation. “The Meaning Behind The 13 Folds Of The United States Flag.” NFF, National Flag Foundation, Accessed 4 Sept. 2021.

“Unserviceable Flags Ceremony.” The American Legion, The American Legion, Accessed 4 Sept. 2021.

“What part did the Legion play in codifying the proper treatment of the U.S. flag?” The American Legion, The American Legion, Accessed 4 Sept. 2021.

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