The U.S. Code, a compilation of the "general and permanent laws" of the United States, includes a chapter on the flag that addresses everything from how fast it should be hoisted to how high it should be flown.
"The flag, when it is in such condition that it is no longer a fitting emblem for display, should be destroyed in a dignified way, preferably by burning," the code states.
But the clause, and the remainder of what is called the Flag Code, are only guidelines, said historian Marc Leepson, author of Flag: An American Biography (Thomas Dunne, 2005).
"You're not going to be arrested for violating guidelines," Leepson said.
The code is likely a compilation of suggestions made during the National Flag Conference of 1923 in Washington, when military groups, patriotic societies, and even representatives of the Ku Klux Klan attended a meeting to discuss flag display, Leepson said. The guidelines were adopted into the U.S. Code in 1942.
The clause that addresses disposal and burning of flags is so vague that there are various ways of observing it, Leepson said.
The American Legion created its own ceremony, adopted in 1937. The Boy Scouts of America and the Girl Scouts of the USA have guidelines, and the Veterans of Foreign Wars also hosts flag-retirement observances that include burning.
Ceremonies often involve an honor guard, patriotic music, readings, and a speech on the meaning of the flag or its history, and end with the burning of tattered Stars and Stripes.
The solemn observance the code suggests stands in seeming contradiction to the federal Flag Protection Act of 1968, enacted in response to antiwar protests in the 1960s. Anyone who burned a flag could be fined and/or imprisoned. The law was struck down by the Supreme Court, outweighed by the right to free speech.
For years, Weiner, a volunteer at Washington Crossing National Cemetery in Bucks County, has collected old flags from residents and veterans' cemeteries in the region.
"I tell people, if it becomes damaged, call me," said Weiner, whose late husband, Harry, a veteran, is interred at Washington Crossing. "I always have flags in the trunk of my car."
On Friday, eight American Legion posts in the Lehigh Valley held a joint ceremony, burning about 12,000 flags collected from residents, schools, municipal buildings, and veterans' cemeteries, said Mark Queen of Walnutport, Pa., eastern vice commander of the Pennsylvania American Legion.
In the Northampton ceremony, the Boy Scouts will cut the blue field of stars away from the stripes and then cut each red and white stripe into individual strips, said scoutmaster Tim Hough of Troop 5 of the North and Southampton Reformed Church in Churchville, which will participate in the Northampton ceremony along with Troop 240 from St. Vincent DePaul Church in Richboro.
When the flag is cut, it ceases to be a flag, so you're not burning a flag, Hough said. By cutting away the blue field, the union [symbolically] remains together. Scout leaders state what the red and white represent as the stripes are cut.
Some troops opt for recycling because newer flags made of synthetic materials may emit gases when burned.
At the 90-minute ceremony in Northampton, there will be a color guard, a performance of patriotic songs, speeches, and then the retirement of the flags, said Peter Palestina, chairman of the township Veterans Advisory Committee.
The flags will be burned in two kettle drums. Members of the Fire Department monitor the ceremony, and a volunteer fireman starts the fire with a flare.
Among those watching will be James Wartenberg of Holland, Bucks County, who collects worn flags from his neighbors for the ceremony. Two years ago, he brought his grandfather Meier Lowenstein's flag to be burned.
Lowenstein was liberated from a German concentration camp during World War II and immigrated to the United States. Soon after, he bought the biggest American flag he could find and flew it for years at his home in Philadelphia. The flag was passed down to Wartenberg. By the time Wartenberg brought the flag to the ceremony, it was showing its age.
"I didn't want to throw it in the trash," Wartenberg said. "I just wanted to do the right thing."
Contact Kristin E. Holmes at 610-313-8211 or email@example.com.