By Greg Davis
On the Fourth of July, Americans wave the flag from their yards, parades and other celebrations across the country to honor our country and those who have served to defend our freedoms. They may not know that when a veteran is buried in one of the national cemeteries operated by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), there is another time-honored tradition with the Stars and Stripes.
If you have ever attended a military funeral, you may have noticed that the honor guards make crisp, intentional folds in the American flag that once draped the casket. First, the handlers fold the flag in half lengthwise twice. Then, starting with the end opposite the blue field, the handlers make a sharp triangular fold. The handlers continue to fold the flag in triangles until at the end only the stars are visible – none of the red and white stripes – just as daylight vanishes into night.
There are a total of 13 folds in the flag ceremony and each holds symbolic value, according to the American Legion (https://www.legion-aux.org/blog/the-symbolism-of-the-13-folds-of-the-u-s-flag):
- The first fold symbolizes life and how precious it is.
- The second fold signifies our belief in eternal life.
- The third fold is made to honor and in tribute of the veteran departing our ranks and defending their country.
- The fourth fold symbolizes our weaker nature and reminds us that we are citizens trusting and searching for guidance in war and peace.
- The fifth fold is an acknowledgment and tribute to our country.
- The sixth fold is in honor of where our hearts lie, as we pledge allegiance to the flag.
- The seventh fold is a tribute to the armed forces to protect our country.
- The eighth fold is in tribute to the one who entered the valley of the shadow of death and to honor mothers for whom the flag flies on Mother’s Day.
- The ninth fold is in honor of womanhood and their character that has helped make this country great.
- The tenth fold is a tribute to fathers who have given their children in sacrifice to our country.
- The eleventh fold represents the lower portion of the seal.
- The twelfth fold represents the emblem of eternity.
- The last fold, when the flag is completely folded with only the stars exposed, reminds us of our national motto, “In God We Trust.”
While the folds themselves have deep history, the VA recently clarified the department’s policies about recitations made while the flag is folded. A family may request the recitation of words as we honor the dedication and sacrifice of their loved ones, or the ceremony may be completely silent. The folding ceremony is followed by three rifle volleys and the playing of “Taps.”
Learning about this flag ceremony and the symbolism behind it can help heighten our appreciation for the American flag, our freedom, and those who serve to defend it. This Independence Day, as you celebrate with family and friends, you can take time to reflect on and honor those who fought for the freedoms of this country and died protecting it.