If your loved one was a United States veteran, their casket might feature a ceremonial American flag.
During the funeral ceremony, the flag is draped over the casket, fully open, with the union blue field facing the head and placed over the left shoulder of the deceased. But after the funeral, the flag has to be removed from the casket and folded according to a specific, traditional procedure.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- Steps for Folding a Flag for a Casket
- What Can You Do With the Flag After the Funeral?
- The Meaning of Folding the Flag
This folding and presentation of a veteran’s funeral flag are a tribute to the veteran, as well as his or her living family members. If you’re holding a military funeral, a uniformed officer will perform the flag-folding ceremony according to tradition.
If you’re not holding a military funeral, you can still apply for a burial flag if your loved one meets the VA’s eligibility requirements. After the funeral, you’ll likely need to fold the casket flag yourself.
Whether you need to fold a flag for a casket and want to do it properly, or you just want to know what to expect at a military funeral, here’s a step-by-step guide for folding a flag for a casket.
Steps for Folding a Flag for a Casket
If you find yourself folding a casket flag, you’ll want to make sure you do so correctly.
Every fold has meaning, and it’s essential to follow the flag-folding protocol down to the smallest detail. To simplify the process, you can follow the steps laid out below.
1. Wash your hands or wear clean gloves
You want to avoid dirtying the flag in any way, so it’s a good idea to start with clean hands. If you want to go an extra step, you can wear a pair of clean gloves, like the Honor Guard would at a military funeral. But this isn’t necessary.
2. Find a clean surface or ask someone to help you
You can fold the flag yourself by laying it down on a clean, flat surface. Make sure there’s no debris or sharp corners that could snag and tear the flag.
Alternatively, you can ask a friend or family member to help you hold the flag up in the air as you fold it. This is the way the Honor Guard performs the flag-folding ceremony at a traditional military funeral.
3. Lay out or hold up the flag correctly
It’s essential to start with the flag right-side-up and arranged correctly. Here’s how to make sure you have the flag in the proper position:
- If you’re folding the flag by yourself, lay it out flat with the field of blue at the upper lefthand corner. Smooth out any wrinkles, and remove any lint or debris you find.
- If you’re folding the flag with a partner, stand facing one another. Hold the flag out flat between you, as if it were laying on a table.
As the person doing the folding, you should hold the end that’s all stripes with both hands. Your partner should hold the field of blue in their left hand and a striped corner in their right.
This means the stars are at the top lefthand corner for someone standing to your left or your partner’s right.
Have your partner hold their end of the flag taut while you do the folding in the following steps.
4. Fold the flag lengthwise
For the first fold, pull the bottom of the flag (the stripes) up over the top to create a fold lengthwise. You should see only stripes after the fold is complete.
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5. Fold the flag lengthwise again
Next, fold the flag lengthwise once again, joining the two open edges. Make sure that the Union blue field of stars is now on top and to the left. If you’re working with a partner, they should be holding the end with the stars.
6. Create a triangular fold
Now, bring the striped corner at the bottom right (the folded edge) up to the open edge.
You should be folding the end diagonally to create a triangular fold at the right side of the flag.
If you’re working with a partner, the fold would be at your end, to your left.
7. Fold the triangle inward
Next, fold the pointed end that you’ve created over the top of the flag, bringing the straight edge parallel to the open edge of the flag.
The folded end of the flag should now be straight again.
8. Continue folding the flag into triangles
Continue folding the right side of the flag into triangles using the same diagonal method described in the steps above. The diagonal fold will alternate from top to bottom as you go.
Keep going until only the field of blue is visible. The field of blue should be in the shape of a triangle, with a right angle at the top lefthand corner.
What Can You Do With the Flag After the Funeral?
If you hold a military funeral, a uniformed officer will present you with the folded flag. It’s then yours to keep as a lasting tribute to your family member.
And of course, if you folded the flag yourself and displayed it at a non-military service, the flag is yours to keep afterward.
So what can you do with the flag after the funeral or memorial service is over? Here are some ideas:
- Display the flag at home. You can place the flag inside a glass case and hang it on a wall or place it on a shelf. You might consider placing your veteran’s honorary medals and other regalia around the flag, as well as a picture of the deceased.
- Fly the flag. There’s much debate around whether or not it’s OK to fly a veteran’s funeral flag. Many people believe that once a flag is folded, it should remain folded. But others think of flying the flag as an honor to the departed veteran. The U.S. Flag Code doesn’t mention whether or not you should fly a funeral flag.
- Donate the flag. Another option you have is to donate the flag if you no longer want it. The flag will go to another veteran’s family for their military funeral honors.
The Meaning of Folding the Flag
Flag etiquette is an essential part of American tradition in both civilian and military life. It ensures that the flag of the United States is always treated with respect and dignity. But why does the flag-folding procedure have to be so complex?
There’s a special meaning associated with each of the folds in an American flag, although the exact origin of the flag-folding procedure we use today is unknown. The flag-folding ceremony is thought to represent specific religious principles that were prevalent when the nation was founded, as well as patriotic ideals.
According to the American Legion, these are the meanings associated with each fold:
- First fold: A symbol of life.
- Second fold: A symbol of eternal life.
- Third fold: In honor and remembrance of veterans who gave their lives.
- Fourth fold: Representative of a person’s weaker nature and guidance from God.
- Fifth fold: A tribute to the country.
- Sixth fold: A symbol of where people’s hearts lie, in allegiance to the flag.
- Seventh fold: A tribute to the Armed Forces.
- Eighth fold: A tribute to “the one who entered into the valley of the shadow of death, that we might see the light of day.”
- Ninth fold: A tribute to women and mothers.
- Tenth fold: A tribute to fatherhood.
- Eleventh fold: Represents the lower portion of the Star of David.
- Twelfth fold: An emblem of eternity.
- Thirteenth fold (or when the flag is fully folded): A reminder of the nation’s motto, “In God We Trust,” and a representation of a tri-fold hat worn by patriots during the Revolutionary War.
Honoring a Veteran
Ultimately, you may or may not adopt the meaning of each of these folds. But the meaning of the ceremony remains the same: honoring a veteran who served the nation and a loved one who will be dearly missed.
- “Burial flags.” U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs: National Cemetery Administration. https://www.cem.va.gov/burial_benefits/burial_flags.asp
- “Flag presentation protocol and the meaning of the folds of the flag-draped coffin.” National Guard Association of Mississippi. https://www.ngams.org/retirees/retiree-news/flag-presentation-protocol-meaning-folds-flag-draped-coffin/
- “What to expect during military funeral honors.” Military One Source. 15 September 2020. https://www.militaryonesource.mil/military-life-cycle/veterans-military-funeral-honors/what-to-expect-during-military-funeral-honors.