A Guide to American Flag Etiquette and Traditions

The United States holds the service of those who protect our country in very high regard. One of the most symbolic ways we show our appreciation is by incorporating the American flag into the traditions and rituals of military and police funerals. The distinctive stars and stripes are a symbol of patriotism, bravery and history. Such a powerful symbol comes with its own unique traditions and funeral etiquette.

Nicknamed “Old Glory,” some sources attribute the design of the first American flag to a New Jersey Congressmen and credit its sewing to seamstress Betsy Ross. On June 14, 1777, less than one year after the United States declared independence from Great Britain, the Continental Congress (a forefather of today’s Congress) declared the stars and stripes as the official American flag. Exactly 172 years later, President Harry S. Truman commemorated June 14 as national Flag Day. Up until 1960, Congress changed the size and shape of the official flag to make room for all 50 states.

Not only does each star stand for a state and each stripe for one of the 13 original colonies, but the colors are also symbolic. Red symbolizes hardiness and valor, white stands for purity and innocence and blue represents vigilance, perseverance and justice. Learn more about the history behind some of America’s funeral traditions featuring flags, as well as etiquette guidelines when incorporating the U.S. flag into funeral services:

General American Flag Etiquette

When the American flag is used during a ceremony for a service member, there are several rules to honor and respect the deceased, in keeping with the U.S. Flag Code.

  • The flag should not be lowered into a grave or touch the ground.
  • The flag should never be used as a covering for a statue or monument.
  • The flag should never be used in such a way that will allow it to be torn, dirtied or damaged.
  • The flag should not have anything placed on it, attached to it or marked on it.
  • A flag should never be used to hold or carry anything.
  • Any flag that is worn, torn or dirtied should no longer be publicly displayed but destroyed in a “dignified way.”

How to Obtain a Burial Flag

The VA provides flags to Veterans who meet their qualifications of service. Funeral professionals can help families with the process of receiving a military-standard American flag by filling out the proper form.

Flags are usually distributed at United States Postal Service offices and VA regional offices. One burial flag is provided per Veteran, so families wishing to have more than one should work with their local funeral home to acquire additional flags through a reputable source.

Flag Display Guidelines for Services with Caskets or Urns

The tradition of covering a deceased Veteran with an American flag became common in the late 1700s during the Napoleonic wars. Flags were originally used to cover the deceased on a battlefield so that both sides could more easily identify them. Today, this tradition is no longer associated with battle but is used to remind family and friends of the deceased’s service to their country.

The VA provides guidance on how the American flag should be displayed when a decedent is placed in a casket:

  • Closed casket:the flag should be draped on the casket so that the union (the blue field) is at the head and over the left shoulder of the deceased.
  • Half couch (open):the flag should be placed in three layers so the blue field will be the top fold next to the open portion of the casket on the deceased’s left.
  • Full couch (open):the flag should be folded in the traditional triangular shape and placed in the center part of the head panel of the casket cap, above the left shoulder of the deceased.

In the case of cremation, a flag that has been folded into the traditional triangle can be displayed next to the cremated remains during a service.

Folding the American Flag

A draped flag should be held over the casket by the pallbearers and, immediately after the sounding of “Taps,” should be folded in the correct way. There is history behind why the American flag is folded in such a precise manner. According to the American Legion, each fold has a different meaning and those meanings are based on traditional religious principles. The origins of this procedure are mostly unknown, but some sources suggest it may have been the Gold Star Mothers of America or an Air Force chaplain who first used this process to honor Veterans.

The American Legion states that the blue field of the flag that is left showing during the folding program stands for honor and represents the states that Veterans served. When a flag is fully folded, it is often referred to as “looking like a cocked hat,” just like the hats worn by soldiers serving under General George Washington during the Revolutionary War.

Flag Presentation Etiquette

The flag presentation protocol for ceremonies conducted by the Department of Defense incorporates a brief speech when presenting the flag to the deceased’s family. This includes expressing gratitude for the individual’s service, and the practice is an important part of the military honors process.

Flag Etiquette for Funerals of Police Officers and Emergency Responders

Flag etiquette for funerals of fallen police officers originates from the American Civil War when returned soldiers would join their local police force. Many police officers’ funerals follow the same flag guidelines as military funerals. Some use the flag of their police department with, or instead of, the American flag. Generally, the police department’s chief will make decisions related to these practices. Funerals of firefighters and EMS personnel can follow similar flag practices as military and police funerals; however, these traditions are newer and still evolving.

Displaying the Flag after a Funeral Service

After the funeral service, families often choose to display the folded flag in a display case that is designed specifically for that purpose. Keep in mind that the flag should be displayed in a manner that will not allow it to be torn or dirtied. In addition, the VA notes that burial flags are “not suitable for outside display” due to their size and fabric, and also because they may be damaged by weather conditions.

Understanding how the American flag is used during funeral services is an important part of respecting fallen and retired military personnel and their families. These honors can mean the world to a family that is experiencing one of the worst days of their life.

For any additional questions relating to flag etiquette for military service members or first responders, please contact your local funeral home or the nearest VA location.

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