What’s the Meaning Behind a Folded American Flag?


If you’ve ever seen a folded American flag, you might wonder if there’s a special symbolism behind it. Unless you have experience in the US military, you might not recognize what this means. The American flag is one of the most important symbols of the nation, and it’s a way to showcase honor and freedom. What’s the meaning behind a folded American flag?

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The American flag is folded for practical reasons. It’s easier to store and transport when it’s folded in a concise way. Since it’s disrespectful to dirty a flag or let it touch the ground, folding it is a practical way to keep the flag protected. However, if you look back through American history, you’ll find even more meaning behind the folded American flag. 

Whether you’re a member of the military, honoring a veteran, or simply interested in patriotism, it’s important to understand the meaning of a folded flag. Respecting veterans and those who served is something everyone should take seriously. 

Where Do You Typically See Folded American Flag in a Triangle Box?

First, where do you see folded American flags? These usually are folded to fit inside a triangle box. A triangle box is designed to hold the flag securely. The most common place you’ll spot these folded American flags is in military funerals. It’s proper flag etiquette for there to be a folding ceremony to honor veterans during their burial. 

You can also see folded American flags in a few other situations:

  • Storage: When American flags need to be stored for a period of time (usually for preservation), they’re folded into a triangle box for preservation. 
  • Transportation: Similarly, when traveling with an American flag, it’s supposed to be folded into a triangle box to keep it from getting damaged or exposed to the elements. 
  • Display: American flags are also commonly displayed within these triangle boxes. 
  • Flag ceremonies: Lastly, in places where the flag is hung every day, there might be a daily flag ceremony to fold the flag when the sun goes down. 

Most people are familiar with folding a flag for a casket, but it can be folded for any number of reasons. It’s a practical way to protect the flag from harm while allowing it to be viewed safely. Within a specialized box, it would be difficult to store the flag properly. The right technique and container mean the flag is free of wrinkles, damage, and creases.

What Does a Folded American Flag Symbolize?

With that in mind, what does a folded American flag symbolize? Aside from being a way to show honor to veterans, the flag itself is a sign of courage, bravery, and freedom. It’s also a way to honor the sacrifices all veterans have made throughout the country’s history. 

The flag itself is folded 13 times to represent the original colonies of the United States. As you’ll discover in the section below, each fold has its own meaning and symbolism. They pay tribute to all those who serve, their families, and civilians. When completely folded, the flag takes on the appearance of a cocked hat. This is a reminder of the soldiers who once served under the first president George Washington, as well as all who came after. 

While you might not think of a tri-cornered hat when you see a folded flag, this is what would have come to mind for those in centuries past. The soldiers who served in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War paved the way for today’s Armed Forces, and it’s important to honor their impact. 

If folded properly, the flag’s red and white stripes aren’t visible anymore. Instead, the blue background with white stars is facing outward. This is a symbol of the daylight disappearing into the night’s darkness. The dark blue is all that remains, but we can see the stars. Like a beacon of hope, the flag is a symbol for all Americans. 

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What Are the Meanings Behind the 13 Folds of an American Flag?

Now that you know what a folded American flag symbolizes, what about each specific fold? When folding a flag properly, one begins by folding it lengthwise two times. Then, there are 13 triangle folds that turn the flag into that classic shape. Each fold represents something different, a way to respect the nation. 

Whether you’re creating a military funeral program, attending a funeral, or simply wish to understand this practice, here’s what each fold means:

  • First fold: This is a symbol of life itself. 
  • Second fold: The second fold is for a belief in eternal life and legacy. In other words, those who serve the nation are remembered forever. 
  • Third fold: The third fold honors all veterans who no longer serve but have given their service to better the nation. 
  • Fourth fold: This fold recognizes that many trust in God and turn to a higher power for guidance during hard times. 
  • Fifth fold: Simply put, the fifth fold is a way to recognize the country as a whole. 
  • Sixth fold: This is the number where our hearts lie. With our hearts, we pledge our allegiance to the nation and the flag. This is like how you put your hand over your heart when you say the pledge of allegiance. 
  • Seventh fold: The seventh fold is a tribute to the United States Armed Forces who serve and protect the country. 
  • Eighth fold: One of the most solemn folds, this honors those who lost their lives fighting for the country. 
  • Ninth fold: This fold symbolizes womanhood. It’s through the strength and love of women that the country’s children are molded. In other words, this is a nod to motherhood. 
  • Tenth fold: Similarly, the tenth fold is for fathers who give their sons and daughters for the defense of the country. 
  • Eleventh fold: This fold honors religion. It particularly represents the seal of King David and King Soloman. It also glorifies the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob for those of the Jewish faith. 
  • Twelfth fold: Another symbol of religion, this fold honors the emblem of eternity in Christianity. 
  • Thirteenth fold: Last but not least, this final fold is for the nation’s motto: “In God we trust.” At this point, the stars should be upward facing. 

As you can see, folding the US flag is a highly meticulous process. It’s a way to honor all of the many facets of this country, from civilians to the Armed Forces. Though it might seem time-consuming, it’s a form of tradition that lives through the years and decades. 

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What Do People Do With Folded American Flags After They Receive Them?

What do people do with folded American flags? These are usually given to next-of-kin after losing a veteran loved one. They might also be passed down through generations as family heirlooms. What do you do with a folded flag in a triangle box? It’s important to handle it with care, compassion, and respect. 

It’s entirely up to the family what they choose to do with the folded American flag. Some options include:

  • Fly the flag: Of course, one of the most common options is to simply fly the flag. While some believe that once a flag is folded for a veteran, it should remain folded, this is not clearly stated in the official flag code. Others see flying the flag as a beautiful symbol of freedom and service.
  • Display: If placed securely in a funeral flag triangle case, you can display the flag. Military funeral flags are a sign of respect and honor. They can be decorated with insignias, medals, nameplates, and even your loved one’s urn. 
  • Donate: Another option is to donate a veteran’s burial flag. Knowing your loved one’s flag is being used in a cemetery, National burial ground, or veteran’s organization can be a form of peace. 

As long as you’re handling the flag in a respectful manner, you should feel confident choosing how you’d wish to display it. However, according to US flag etiquette, there are some things you should never do with a flag. For example, it should never be flown upside down, used as a decorative drapery or covering, or displayed with the stripes upward. 

Ultimately, it’s all about knowing how to respect the US flag. Understanding the history and symbolism behind a folded flag is a great first step, but this shouldn’t be your only step. Whether you’re honoring a loved one or the nation as a whole, make sure you handle each flag with care and compassion. 

Symbol of Honor: Folded American Flag

As you can see, there is a rich history behind the folded American flag. The symbol might not stand out to some, but it dates back to the Revolutionary War. Fighting for freedom is no small matter, and it’s essential to honor those who give their lives to their country. 

Folded American flags are heirlooms to be stored, displayed, and honored. Whether you’re given a flag as part of a military funeral or as a family heirloom, this is a part of your family’s story. How will you honor your loved one’s legacy?

  1. Young, Lisa A. “The Meaning Behind Folding an American Flag.” Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. SI.edu

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