Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Additional national flags, other flags & display boxes

The proper presentation of the casket flag and presenting additional National flags is an issue that often causes a substantial amount of discussion and argument during the planning process of a police funeral.

The presentation of an additional National flag to someone chosen by the family is a well-established practice and should be recognized as a legitimate part of the honors ceremony if the surviving family requests it. As all funeral coordinators know, what the surviving family wants is paramount. If the surviving family wants a specific person or persons to receive an additional National flag, then they will.

There is only one casket flag, the National flag. This is the flag that is folded and presented to the surviving family, usually the surviving spouse. Any additional National flags presented shall be pre-folded. They must be presented and received with dignity and respect. There is no requirement that they be presented by the agency executive, chief or sheriff. They may be presented by someone else if the presentation would be more meaningful to the recipient. If the surviving spouse agrees that the presentation of an additional flag by the deceased officer’s patrol partner to the deceased officer’s young son, whom the partner knows well, would have a special meaning, then it should be done.    

There have been times when members of a funeral planning team adamantly argued that no one except a family member should receive an additional National flag. There is no restriction as to who can receive an additional flag. It is done at the surviving family’s request. There is no limit as to how many flags can be presented. However, the requests must be reasonable.

At one funeral planning meeting the deceased officer’s parents had made a request that an additional flag be presented to their son’s fiancee. A planning team member argued the fact that the officer had not officially asked the woman to marry him, even though his parents had talked to him about it and it was common knowledge that he was going to officially ask her soon, she should not receive a flag.

At another funeral, the family wanted three flags given to relatives that were members of law enforcement agencies, one the same agency as the deceased, the other two in other local agencies. On another occasion, a wife asked that each of her two sons get a pre-folded flag. All of these people deserved to get a pre-folded flag because it is what the surviving family asked for. There should be no judgmental discussion about the worthiness of an individual or their official relationship to the deceased. If the family asks for additional flags, just do it.

Can a request be denied? Although I have never experienced a situation where I would deny someone an additional flag, I am sure there could be a situation where it might be inappropriate and therefore withheld. The presentation of a National flag to someone is more than fulfilling a surviving family’s request. It is a profound symbolic gesture. It is an honor. It needs to be presented and received with dignity and respect. It represents the patriotism and dedication and self sacrifice of the deceased officer and of every officer attending the funeral. In my opinion, if I had verified reasonable cause to believe that the intended recipient would not receive the flag in the manner that it was intended, with dignity and respect, then I would deny the request for it to be presented.

At many line-of-duty funeral honors ceremonies, other flags are presented to the family. These are usually a state flag and possibly a military flag or organizational flag. These flags should be presented by the appropriate entity representative after the casket flag and any other pre-folded National flags have been presented. They should be appropriately pre-folded.

The surviving family and all National flag recipients should either receive an appropriate display box for the flag or be informed of how and where to acquire one. These flags are presented as a memorial to the deceased and hopefully will be displayed. Agency funeral coordinators should ensure the family is able to acquire the display or shadow boxes and try to ensure they are appropriately displayed.

If a surviving family is uncertain what they will do with the casket flag after it is presented and do not intend to immediately display it, the agency executive may request the flag so that it can be appropriately displayed at the agency until the family is ready for its return.

John Cooley

Monday, April 9, 2012

The Casket Flag

I receive inquiries about casket flags for law enforcement funerals on a regular basis. They have included such questions as:

·        Can a casket flag be used for an officer who committed suicide?
·        Does an officer have to be a veteran to have a casket flag?
·        Can a casket flag be used for retirees?
·        Can there be more than one casket flag folded and presented?
·        Can a casket flag be used for a canine?

These questions were related to a variety of circumstances, including officers’ deaths from illness, accident or suicide and officers killed in the line-of-duty. I will share my responses to these inquiries in this blog and add some additional personal thoughts.

There have been times when an active or retired officer has been involved in criminal activity that contributed to their death. In one situation, an officer was involved in a felony hit and run and when the investigators came to his home to confront him, he committed suicide. Another off-duty officer was trying to flee a vice prostitution sting and died in a traffic collision. Another officer was working an unauthorized off-duty security job as a body guard and drew his weapon and committed an ADW against a citizen, not knowing that the citizen was an undercover officer, who drew his weapon and fired, killing the body guard. Yet another officer was on-duty and was being arrested by investigators when he resisted and drew his weapon, resulting in his being shot by an investigator.

Whenever an active or retired officer’s death results from them being investigated for criminal activity or is the result of their participation in criminal activity, the agency should not provide an honors ceremony at the funeral. This includes having a casket flag, the folding, and presentation.

I use this criminal activity introduction to describe casket flags for suicides. Officers who commit suicide, without any criminal activity involved, do not commit a crime. Therefore, there is neither a protocol to restrict the use of a casket flag nor is there any protocol recommending it. It is the chief’s decision.

Since the draping of the casket with the National flag is a military tradition that began during the Napoleonic Wars (1796-1815) and is a common sight in our military funerals, many people think that it is only for veterans. I have received numerous calls about the appropriateness of having a casket flag for a non-veteran active duty or retired officer. I even had an inquiry because a funeral director advised that a casket flag was not appropriate for a line-of-duty death because the officer was not a veteran. A casket flag is appropriate for all active duty officers, especially those killed in the line-of-duty, and all honorably retired officers.

Can a casket flag be used for retirees? Yes! Again, it is at the chief’s discretion.

There is one casket flag per casket and therefore only one flag to be folded and presented to the surviving family. Additional National flags can be presented to various family members and these flags should be pre-folded. I attended a funeral where the family insisted on having the casket covered twice and two flags folded and presented to two different family members. The family’s wishes were honored, because it’s ultimately the chief’s decision.

The United States Flag Code is a guideline, not a law. There are few, if any, absolutes. Many of the sections say “Should …” rather than “Shall …” Funeral coordinators should try to adhere to the code but there may be times when a modification may be needed to accommodate the wishes of the family or agency. Dignity and respect are the key considerations.

The flag code says that flags should not be carried horizontally. I was managing a service with an honors ceremony inside the church and there was no casket, the officer was cremated. The honor guard, made up of his co-workers, wanted to carry the flag down the center aisle horizontally rather then vertically and then proceed to fold it and present it. The ceremony was done with dignity and respect and went very well.

A casket flag is a special flag. It is 5 x9 ½ feet, cotton, with embroidered stars. It is never silk screened.

A controversial flag issue I get inquiries about is the appropriateness of having a casket flag cover the casket of a canine, especially one killed in the line of duty. I am not aware of any protocol that recommends or discourages the use of a national flag as a canine casket flag. The U.S. Flag Code refers to U.S. citizens, veterans, highly regarded state and national figures but makes no mention of canines.

I know of line-of-duty memorial services for canines that had a casket and a casket flag, folding and presentation and some that didn’t. I know of memorials where the canine was cremated and there was no casket but there was still a National flag, folding and presentation. The decision to have a casket flag or a National flag folded and presented is always at the discretion of the chief or sheriff.

I believe that there should not be a casket flag or a National flag folding and presentation for a canine, because there should be a clear demarcation maintained between police dogs and the human beings they serve. I think that the National flag should be reserved for the officers who took an oath to protect the Constitution of the United States, accepted the responsibilities and risks associated with that oath, and who sacrificed their lives to fulfill it. I am aware of strong opinions on both sides of this issue. Once again, it is a chief’s decision.  

Another related casket flag issue is, “Can a casket flag be placed, folded and presented for a civilian?” The answer is absolutely yes! There is no flag code section restricting the use of a flag for civilian members of an agency. The Code permits a casket flag for any U.S. citizen. Again, it is the chief’s decision.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012


Nice to have you join us! This is the place where I will share my experiences and knowledge of planning and facilitating dignified, meaningful law enforcement/public safety funerals and memorials. After all, you only get one chance to say that final goodbye, so you must plan ahead to do right by the officer's memory, his/her surviving family, agency members and their families. And you must not forget the community members who wish to share in the public expression of collective grief, as well as demonstrate their support for both the surviving family and the agency experiencing the loss.

Get it right, and attendees will remember it forever. Screw it up, and they'll also remember it forever, though not for the intended reasons, and that can affect how agency members and the community view the agency far into the future.

Feel free to email me any questions you may have, and I'll answer them here so that others may learn, too (unless, of course, you request it be answered privately.)

Check back often, because I have years of experience (and stories) about the sometimes surprising issues and predicaments that can arise, even with the most well-planned intentions!

For further information, check out my book Planning for the Unthinkable: A Law Enforcement Funeral Planning Guide available through my website
It's the most comprehensive law
enforcement funeral planning
resource you'll find anywhere.

See you again, soon!