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.


  1. According to the U.S. Supreme Court decision, there are no legal restrictions upon the use of the American flag. It is legal to have a flag on the coffin of a Dog, and a non veteran(just an ordinary citizen who is very patriotic).

  2. Military troops are provided and buried under our national colors because they served our nation, while most police officers only serve a local community, county or state, therefor would it not be more appropriate that they are buried under the flag they served IE a state, county or city flag? Just food for thought.

    1. When an officer takes an oath of service they are expected to protect all citizens of the United States, not just local or state. That's my food for thought.

    2. As a 30 year retired Deputy Sheriff Sergeant, I, along with all of my fellow officers took the oath to protect and serve 24 hours a day. It was made clear to us that even while "off" duty, we never really were. Upon taking that oath we promised to assist, respond, observe, report and aid in any way we could any time an incident occurred. Where we were - in or out of our "jurisdiction " or state had no bearing. We were expected to use our training to serve. It is my humble opinion that as such we have more than earned the privilege of being buried with a United States flag. To think otherwise truly indicates one has no concept of what a responsibility an officer has, or the fear his/her family lives with through the duration of the career. Thank you.

    3. Yes sir, you are absolutely correct. I was medically retired due to injuries incurred on duty while a PO. I worked a high powered area and was involved in 4 ambushes which I luckily survived. I was even detached for a very short time to help body guard one of our presidents back in the 70's. I was never more than ten away from him. Go figure, the SS must have been short handed. When I pass, I would like to think my wife has earned it, putting up with me all these years.

  3. We've had folks ask how the flag is folded, please watch this video.

  4. We've had folks ask how the flag is folded, please watch this video.

  5. Police serve their local community. A community or state flag is appropriate. The US flag should be reserved for those defending the nation, the military.

  6. The American flag should be used and displayed in a casket for all Military branches of the United States of America who served or is active and retired of the armed forces including K-9 Military dogs. The President and the First lady of the United States of America. Any Public servent active or served or retired from a Federal, State and Municipal office. A Mayor, Governor, Senator, Congressman and Legislature of the United States of America. A police officer active and retired and K-9 Police dog used to protect our community and nation. A fire fighter active and retired. Must be a citizens of the United States of America.