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The 13 folds of the flag

The real meaning behind the act

The 13 folds of the flag during a memorial service are a time-honored tradition in the military. Photo credit: United States Air Force

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At military funerals, there is a storied history and etiquette that surrounds the folding of the American flag.

Before being stored overnight or presented at a funeral, the Honor Guard will form a triangular pillow out of the flag with only the blue-starred field showing on the outside. The flag is twice folded in half lengthwise; then (from the end opposite the blue field), the Honor Guard members make a triangular fold, continuing to fold the flag in triangles until the other end is reached.

The two lengthwise folds and the 11 triangular folds comprise the 13 folds commonly associated with the presentation of the flag at a military funeral.

  • The first fold: Symbolic of life
  • The second fold: Symbolic of eternal life
  • The third fold: Made in honor and remembrance of the departed veteran
  • The fourth fold: Represents weak nature, and that trust in God for guidance in peace and war is needed
  • The fifth fold: A tribute to the United States
  • The sixth fold: Symbolic of where our hearts lie in relation to allegiance to the United States
  • The seventh fold: A tribute to the nation's Armed Forces
  • The eighth fold: A tribute to the departed veterans entering the valley of the shadow of death and the hope that he or she will see the light of day
  • The ninth fold: A show of respect to all mothers
  • The 10th fold: An acknowledgement to fathers
  • The 11th fold: Represents the lower portion of the seal of King David and King Solomon and glorifies the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob
  • The 12th fold: Signifies the eternity of God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit
  • The 13th fold: When the flag is completely folded and the stars are uppermost, is a reminder of the nation's motto, "In God We Trust"

These meanings are associated with the folds of the flag and have become "real" in the sense that they mean something to the individuals who take part in the ceremony. In fact, people can and do request that the cadence governing the folding of the flag be slowed in order to allow for a reciting of the meaning of each fold.

But this is not the reason why a flag is folded in the traditional 13-step manner.

"We have a rigid set of standards that have to be conducted in order to ensure that the flag is folded properly," said Staff Sgt. Eugene Kelley.

The non-commissioned officer in charge (NCOIC), of Military Funeral Honors for the Washington Army National Guard, Kelley began his Army service with the Honor Guard at Arlington National Cemetery.

"Our trainers and instructors for regimental orientation processing (Arlington/Old Guard ceremonial trainers) never once talked about the meaning of the 13 folds," Kelley explained. "The meanings of the 13 folds were incorporated through society -- not through any flag code or operating procedure that has been or is currently in use."

On this Memorial Day, when the American flag is folded, it is done only to provide a dignified ceremonial touch that distinguishes it from the folding of an ordinary sheet of cloth.

"The folding of the flag is about closure," said Kelley. "I think loved ones of a veteran like the final moment of the funeral to have a solemn and respectful ending that begins the closure for healing."

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