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How to Dispose of a Damaged American Flag

Two Methods:Respectfully Burning the FlagChoosing Alternate Disposal Methods

As a revered symbol of freedom and justice, the flag of the United States of America needs to be treated with the utmost respect. This respect extends to the flag's eventual retirement and destruction. The United States Flag Code (4 USC Sec 8 Para (k) Amended 7 July 1976) states: "The Flag, when it is in such condition that it is no longer a fitting emblem of display, should be destroyed in a dignified way, preferably by burning." Follow the steps in this guide to dispose of a worn or damaged flag with the respect it deserves.

Method 1
Respectfully Burning the Flag

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    Build a fire. Build a medium-size campfire or bonfire in a safe location, away from any buildings or trees. If you can, use a well-maintained fire pit or a dedicated fire area. Clear away any leaves, garbage or other debris. As well as posing a safety hazard, an area littered with these things isn't befitting the dignity of the flag.
    • Wait for the fire to reach a strong but steady burn. The fire should be strong enough to incinerate the entire flag, but not so intense that it may blow partially burnt flag pieces out of the fire.
    • Avoid disposing of the flag on particularly windy days. If the flag blows away while it's burning, it can pose a serious fire hazard.
    • Check local burning ordinances in your area. Some jurisdictions prohibit constructing fires without first obtaining permission from the local government. Visit the Environmental Protection Agency website for more information.[1]
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    Lower and fold the flag. Flags that are worn, tattered, or soiled beyond repair should be respectfully retired. If the flag is currently flying, slowly lower it with respect and remove it from its pole. Fold the flag into its traditional triangle fold. If you're unsure how to properly fold a flag, consult our guide or visit the Veterans of Foreign Wars website[2] for instructions.
    • Always handle the flag with care and respect. Don't place it on the ground or put anything on top of it as you carry it to the fire.
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    Carefully place the folded flag on top of the fire. Place the flag in the center of the flames, taking care not to burn yourself. If the fire is too hot for you to be able to place the flag directly into the fire, wait for it to die down - don't toss the flag into the fire from a distance. Watch the flag - make sure that it is burned safely and completely. Incompletely burning the flag before disposing of it is considered undignified. [3]
    • Don't place the flag into the fire without folding it first. Besides being disrespectful, a loose, billowy flag can easy float or blow away.
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    Take a moment to respect the flag. As the flag burns, observe it with reverence. You can even show your respect for the flag in your words or actions - you may salute the flag or observe a moment of silence. Whatever you choose to do, be sure to remain respectful and reverent as the flag as it is retired. Never chat, make jokes, or divert your attention (for instance, to a cell phone) as the flag burns.
    • Official government flag retirements are accompanied by an elaborate ceremony where the flag is formally presented, recognized, and destroyed. [4]
    • If you're at home, you may want to give a short speech before or after burning the flag. If you do, focus on the symbolism of the flag - what does it represent to you? Does it make you feel sad to retire it? Why are you sad to see it go?
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    Say the Pledge of Allegiance. As the flag is destroyed, take a moment to honor it with the Pledge of Allegiance. Receiving the Pledge of Allegiance is a noble, fitting final duty for your flag. The flag is more than a piece of fabric - it represents liberty and justice and it commemorates the sacrifices made by brave men and women to uphold these ideals. Show your commitment to the flag and the ideals it represents by swearing yourself to it with the Pledge of Allegiance.
    • The words of the Pledge of Allegiance are: "I 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."
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    Make sure the fire is completely put out. When no flag material remains, you may put the fire out. Alternatively, you may allow the fire to gradually and safely burn out on its own (if you do this, don't leave the fire unattended as it burns out.) Exercise proper fire safety protocols when putting a fire out. If you have built a campfire, completely douse the coals with water.
    • Don't bury hot coals when other people are around, especially if they're barefoot (for instance, as they may be at a public beach) - you can cause serious burns.
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    Consider more elaborate ceremonial options. The steps above detail a simplified DIY process for disposing of an American flag. They're ideal if, for instance, you want to retire a flag you've been flying at home. However, if you have access to trained members of a color guard and are comfortable leading formal ceremonies and/or issuing commands to the color guard, you may choose to conduct a formal flag retirement ceremony similar to the one performed by the Boys and Girl Scouts. See How to Retire a U.S. Flag for more information.
    • These formal ceremonies are also a good choice if you have a large number of flags to retire, as they use just one flag to represent all of the flags being retired that day. When retiring flags en masse, it's often very impractical to give each individual flag its own retirement ceremony.

Method 2
Choosing Alternate Disposal Methods

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    Bury and/or shred the flag. If, for some reason, you cannot burn a flag, you may choose to bury it. Contrary to popular belief, burning is not the only way that a flag can be disposed of. The United States Flag code dictates that burning is only the preferred method of disposal - as long you retire the flag with respect and dignity, an alternate method is acceptable. To bury the flag, begin by finding a dignified wooden box - it should be of good quality and construction, as this box will serve as the flag's vessel as it is interred in the ground. Fold the flag respectfully and place it in the box. Bury the flag in the earth. You may choose to mark the burial location of the flag with a small, respectful wooden or stone marker.
    • Before burying the flag, you may also shred the flag. Shredding an American flag may at first seem violent or undignified. However, if burning the flag isn't possible, the US Army's Heraldry institute recommends shredding as an acceptable disposal method, provided it is done with reverence.[5] Use scissors to slowly and methodically separate the thirteen stripes, leaving the blue star-spangled field intact. After the flag is completely cut into pieces, place it in a respectful receptacle and bury it OR ceremoniously burn the pieces one by one, starting with the stripes and ending with the blue field.
    • You may even consider giving a short "funeral" for the flag. Give a short, reverent speech on the importance of the flag as it sits in its "coffin." Stand at attention as the flag is lowered into the ground. Observe a moment of silence as the flag is buried.
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    Consider recycling synthetic flags. When the Flag Code was written, almost all flags were made of cloth or other natural fabrics. Today, however, many flags are made from nylon, polyester, or other artificial materials. These modern materials, when burnt, can produce toxic fumes which are harmful to the environment (and any bystanders). Private organizations and non-profits have been formed to recycle vinyl flags - contact a group like American Flag Recycling[6] for more information.
    • Among organizations that provide criteria for properly disposing of American flags, opinions vary as to whether it's disrespectful to recycle the flag. The Boy Scouts of America advocates for recycling synthetic flags,[7] while the American Legion recommends against it.[8] Search for arguments on both sides of the question, then make your own decision - does recycling an American flag seem disrespectful to you?
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    Give the flag to a qualified organization. Certain United States government organizations offer services to dispose of the flag with proper ceremony at your request for no charge. The American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, the Boy Scouts of America, the Girl Scouts of America and the US Military provide this service. If you don't have access to any of these organizations, you may find success by contacting your city hall or local government.


  • Do not soak or coat the flag in an accelerant. If you must use an accelerant, such as lighter fluid, to ensure a complete burn, apply it to the wood you use to build the fire.


  • Always exercise caution when dealing with fire and flammable materials.
  • Always burn a flag properly as described in the instructions above.

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Categories: Flags