The tradition of draping an American flag on the casket of a war veteran stems from a practice first employed during the Napoleonic Wars. A soldier killed on the battlefield was covered with his army’s flag before being carried off on a caisson. There was no spiritual meaning behind this practice or the military funeral tradition that evolved from it. However, spiritual symbolism has been linked to the manner in which the American flag is folded. In addition, flag-folding ceremonies with accompanying scripts that carry a religious or spiritual tone are often incorporated into the funeral rites of veterans.
Folding According to the U.S. Flag Code
A casket flag is always folded in accordance with the U.S. Flag Code. Two people lift the flag parallel to the casket. They fold the flag in half length-wise twice with the blue field of stars on the outside. The first triangular fold is made by bringing the striped corner of the folded edge to meet the flag’s open edge. The next triangle is made by taking the pointed outer corner of the first triangle and folding it over to the meet the flag’s folded edge. This process is repeated until a folded triangle of the blue field of stars is left. The U.S. Flag Code does not attach any spiritual meaning to the official folding of the national flag. However, The American Legion has indicated the field of stars is left in view to remind Americans of the national motto “In God We Trust”.
Folding the U.S. Flag with a Spiritual Script
An unofficial flag-folding ceremony popular with veterans attaches spiritual meaning to several of the 13 folds. This script follows this general format: The first fold represents life; the second fold symbolizes a belief in eternal life; the third fold is in honor and remembrance of the veteran; the fourth fold represents a trust in God; the fifth fold is a tribute to America; the sixth fold is where the hearts of Americans lie; the seventh fold is a tribute to the Armed Forces; the eighth fold is a tribute to the veteran who entered the Valley of the Shadow of Death and also honors mothers; the ninth honors fathers; the eleventh fold acknowledges the beliefs of Jewish veterans; the twelfth fold honors Christian belief in the Holy Trinity.
Christian Doctrine and Flag-Draped Caskets
Christian funeral tradition requires that the national flag be removed from the casket before it is brought into the Church. The basis for this policy to remind mourners that the deceased is a Christian first and any other association, including membership in the armed forces, is secondary. The flag is often replaced by a sacramental pall. The pall is meant to remind Christians of their baptism and to reinforce the belief that all men are equal in God’s eyes. The pall is removed and the flag is replaced after the casket leaves the church.
Other Flags on Caskets
The American national flag is not the only type of flag that may be placed on the casket of a veteran. Flags representing fraternal associations such as the Forresters or religious associations such as The Knights of Columbus occasionally may be used to cover a casket. These flags also must be removed before the casket is brought into a Christian church. President John Tyler, the tenth President of the United States who died in 1862, was the only President to have a flag other than the American flag on his casket. He requested his coffin be draped in the flag of the Confederate States.
- Arlington National Cemetary: Military Funeral Customs
- The American Legion: Flag Folding Procedures
- The Flag of the United States of America: Flag Folding
- The Retired Enlisted Association: Honoring Those Who Served: U.S. Flag (Stars and Stripes) Folding Ceremony
- Catholic Answers: Must the Pall Replace the Flag at a Funeral Mass
- Online Caskets: Funeral Practices: Christians
- Trappist Caskets: The Church and Death and Dying
- A New Adventure: The Presidents: John Tyler
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