Appropriate Flag Retirement

DrillMaster Color Guard/Color Team, Honor Guard, Honor Guard Training, Protocol and Flag 20 Comments

There is a flag fold technique for the first triangle fold called, Cutting the First Stripe. It’s used for an interment flag that has been used for practice and has been folded and refolded so much that it is a bit stretched out, but still good for practice. This technique “cuts” the stripe in half on that first fold, pictured at left. It has nothing to do with taking a knife or scissors to the flag. For more on inappropriately cutting the American flag, click here.

A tattered or faded American Flag is ready for retirement. Retiring an American flag means to burn it. Some people feel that burning a flag, no matter the situation, is still disrespectful. In the flag retirement situation, nothing could be further from the truth.

Burning and Burning

There is a big difference! Americans, who love their country and flag, do not treat that flag with disrespect. We do not just throw it away in the garbage when it is no longer fit for everyday display. There are exceptions to this with historic tattered flags on display across the country. When the flag is no longer suitable for daily display, we take the flag, fold it into a rectangle, and burn it. Some Americans feel the need to burn our country’s flag because they are unable to form a cogent, coherent argument and need to stand on a corner in front of others and push their disrespectful agenda in the face of others by flying a burning American flag.

Side note: I support freedom of speech and some view burning our flag as just that. I will defend the right of people who want to act irresponsibly and burn our flag. I do not like the action and do not support the attempt to get ones point across in this manner, but I do not have to watch and I can treat flags in my charge with respect and care as I hope you will. The difference? Respect (for the flag and others) has everything to do with it.

Flag Retirement the Wrong Way


If you cut the stars from the stripes, it’s no longer the American flag and you can then feel better about burning it. I guess that is the illogical reasoning behind this act of initial disrespect to the flag to avoid disrespect to the flag. It doesn’t make sense to cut up the American flag unless it is too big to burn safely. Then, cut it into four pieces. But the Scouts cutting up smaller flags, shown here, is here are wholly unnecessary.


Boy and Girl Scouts and many veteran organizations across the country are practicing this disrespect to our flag. I do not know when or where it started, but it needs to stop right now! We need to educate cadets and Scouts as well as our well-meaning veterans. Recently, I read a reply to my comment on a social media account that stated ‘since a flag company says on their website that it is OK, we are going to cut our flags. The flag company does not make the rules. Congress does and that would be the Flag Code.

Cutting the flag up does not mean shredding it. Shredding it is accomplished by a machine that is called… a shredder. Synthetic flags should be shredded rather than burned since burning those materials can give off noxious fumes.

Let’s find out how we can appropriately honor our national symbol.

Flag Retirement, the Correct Way

When to actually cut the flag: The only time to cut the flag and then burn it is when it is too large to safely burn as a whole. Safety is paramount.

Dangerous plastic fumes. For a flag that is made of nylon or another type of man-made material, it probably should not be burned. Shredding is more appropriate in this case. I was provided excellent information by a reader who stated that his organization, along with many others around the country, incinerate these flags. Incinerating is not “burning”, it’s burning with much higher heat to completely destroy materials and incinerators usually have filters to capture gases and materials in the flue.

At home, make a fire on your grill. Fold your flag into a rectangle (no, it does not represent a casket) and place it on the fire. A flag folded into a triangle is much more difficult to burn due to all of the folded layers.

Burning Flags
A private ceremony would be better

In a private ceremony, place the representative flag, folded in a triangle on a very hot fire and recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Burn the rest of the flags eligible for retirement in an incinerator or a very hot, roaring fire, preferably not in public. I understand the public ceremony, I just don’t appreciate it and actually, neither does the US Army.

1-7 Restrictions
(4) h. Unserviceable flags. Unserviceable flags will not be used for banners or any other purpose. When a flag is no longer suitable for display, it will not be cast aside or used in any way that may be viewed as disrespectful. If not preserved as specified in chapters 2, 5, 6, and 10, it will be destroyed privately (emphasis mine), preferably by burning, shredding, or by some other method that does not show irreverence or disrespect to the flag.

AR 840-10 (15 June 2017)

Click here to read the American Legion’s Unserviceable Flag Retirement Ceremony adopted in 1937.

As you can see, no one has ever advocated cutting the canton (blue field) from the stripes, except for the Boy Scouts. It is inappropriate to do so unless the flag is to large to safely burn and it does not matter what some flag-based website has to say as far as a recommendation. Not even this one. I am providing links to professional guidance set forth by groups with the intention of providing the utmost respect.

Associated article: Disrespect to the American Flag

Comments 20

  1. I recently saw a piece or furniture in a group. This group is to promote Dixie Bell chalk paint. A flag was cut up to make the cushions for a chair. The back cushion was the stars and the seat was made of the stripes and the chair was placed atop another flag. This I know is inappropriate.
    My question is: can flags be painted on furniture without disrespect? Can material that has flags stamped on it be used for decoration or clothing if it’s not an actual flag? What about flag bandannas?

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      The Flag Code states anything that looks like our flag must be treated like our flag. It cannot be painted on furniture, it is never to cover anything other than a casket, and never cut up to be parts of anything else. All clothing that has the flag on it violates the Flag Code.

      But no one really cares except for a handful of Americans.


  2. I recently received a single star cut out of an American Flag no longer fit to fly as a thank you for my service. Everything in me said that, while I appreciate the gesture, cutting the stars from a flag is wrong. This is what prompted me to search online and how I came across your site.

    Can you confirm for me that my feeling is correct…that cutting the stars from flag, while may be well intentioned, is wrong and must stop?

    Thank you!

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  3. Here’s the most current guidance I’ve seen from the BSA. The key to the cutting method is that as soon as it is cut vertically (along the base of the blue canton to the end of the flag), it is no longer a *flag* representing the US. As long as the cutting is handled respectfully, this keeps retirement of more common synthetic flags more attainable and performable than putting it through a shredder (who has a shredder on hand stout enough to run through a standard flag?).

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      I’m aware of the BSA guidance and it’s still wrong. As stated in the article, the only time the flag should be cut is when it would be hazardous to shred or burn the whole thing at once. There is no other reason to cut the flag and BSA needs to stop doing it.

      1. Having been a Scout and Scouter for almost 50 years, there are a lot of practices that BSA needs to stop. I attended many flag retirements and protested certain practices to which I got many, many replies attempting to be patriotic but not once could anyone cite an official source. The practicing of cutting a stripe would fall into the destroying a flag and by their thought process, wouldn’t a tattered flag cease to be an American flag in theory? BSA is one of the worse when it comes to true patriotism along with the constant and persistent history of insulting of the American Indians through inaccurate cultural appropriation.

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          BSA has long desecrated the flag since the Flag Code was developed and adopted by Congress. The organization should have ceased those practices at that time. Before the Flag Code, just about anything was “go”.

          I’m not sure what you mean by “inaccurate cultural appropriation”.

  4. Is there any way a local representative that can be contacted in say the case of a local scout troop to address how inappropriate it is to cut up the flag to use the stars in this manner? A source outside the organization who could better give them an understand of how they misinterpreted that it is ok? Point of reference is that I live in MD but have heard of this in VA.

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      Ms. Toyofuku,

      The trouble is that the founder of the Boy Scouts taught the Scouts how to retire the flag cutting it up. It’s a very long standing tradition and breaking that bad habit will take much effort.


    2. Talk to the Scout leader! There are several sources of proper ways to dispose of the flag, including from the American Legion and the Department of Defense. They are easily found on the internet.

      Some persist in cutting stars from the retired flags and then using them with a sincere note to be delivered to veterans or active military. I’ve learned this is inappropriate, since the flags should be disposed of in their entirety. It’s a seemingly meaningful gesture, and I believe the people who participate mean no disrespect, but better to retire the flags intact and find some other enclosure to share with those to whom thanks and kind notes are being given.

      There’s an old, short, but impactful book written by James Clavell that addresses the sinister impact of cutting an American flag. It’s called “The Children’s Story.” I personally urge all to treat the flag with the respect to which it has symbolized for patriotic Americans, and for those who have sacrificed to ensure those freedoms which it is meant to represent.

  5. I believe people got the idea of separating the stars and stripes from the over run procedure. Historically when a post was about to be over run by the enemy and to keep the flag out of enemy hands the stars and stripes would be separated (to basically kill it as a symbol of America) then burned.
    (They use to keep a razor, matches and a bullet in the truck of the flag pole and a gun buried to protect it until it was completed.)

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  6. Hello All,
    To qualify the point I’d like to make, I am a retired veteran, an EMT and have worked with hazardous materials for many years. As well, I have assisted in many flag retirement ceremonies where we respectfully burned our worn flags.

    Several years ago at a flag retirement ceremony, I recall seeing a fellow veteran rendering a sharp salute as flags burned as the thick acrid smoke wafted by him . His breathing was supported by a small O2 cylinder through a nasal cannula. I agree, he shouldn’t have been there. But, neither should any of our Scouts and Vets.
    As most know, per our flag code, retiring our national flag by burning is the “preferred method”. I read preferred to suggest that other methods would be fine but, not preferred. Why would any patriot suggest that any other method that demonstrates an appropriate degree of respect … would be wrong. ?

    Since the last flag code update 50+ yrs ago, our country has come a long way:
    – Cotton flags are out / cheaper a longer lasting synthetic flags of nylon/polyester are in.
    – Many a citizen fly their flag year round, It flies proudly day and night.
    – Burning nylon and polyester emit a potpourri of hazardous particulate and gasses.
    – Chronic lung disease has risen to the 3rd leading cause of death according to the most
    recent National Center for Health Statistics.
    – Many cities have clean air boards and spare the air days
    Kudos to those leaders looking for smarter methods of respectfully retiring our national colors.

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      Mr. Copsey,

      Thank you very much for your input. The article above does tell readers: “Synthetic flags should be shredded rather than burned since burning those materials can give off noxious fumes.”


  7. I’m trying to find the flag retirement ceremony where cut the stripes one by one and recite what each stripe signifies, can you help me????

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      Mr. Dershe,

      I can help. Stop searching. Cutting the flag is not part of a flag retirement ceremony unless the flag is huge and it would be unsafe to destroy it properly. That huge flag is cut into manageable pieces and burned or, if of a man-made material, it is shredded. That’s the cutting part, now onto the meaning of each stripe.

      Just as in the Meaning of the 13 Flag Folds, there isn’t any meaning at all. Official meaning has never been assigned to the folds or stripes. Now, the meaning behind the colors of the flag is a different subject but again, there isn’t an official meaning behind the colors originally.


      1. I have received stars that were cut from flags that were being retired, each one with a note thanking a veteran (we are to give them to a veteran to honor them). These stars, with the note in a small plastic bag, are in a basket at the Western Caballero Museum in Wickenburg, AZ for anyone to take. Being a DAR member, I got several of these to give out to veterans, as we always honor our veterans.

        Is this legal? Another DAR member has brought up the fact that this might not be legal. Thank you.

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