The tragic events of September 11th, 2001 caused many of us to become more aware of our flag as a symbol of our country, and the valor and service given to it by victims of the terrorist attacks, and the many war veterans who have gone before them. The flag as a symbol has its roots in the dawn of time when a person or tribe displayed a special object or totem which would distinguish them from others.
These tribal symbols evolved over the years into emblems distinctive of nations. The first emblems used by the Egyptians and Greeks were made of stone, metal or wood placed high on a staff over an attached streamer.
Eventually the streamer became a pennant, and then the pennant evolved into flag form to represent a nation or city state. We believe that around 1000 A.D. the Vikings were the first Europeans to fly a flag over the North American continent. The Vikings' flag depicted a black raven on a white background. The Vikings, as well as other early explorers, would release a raven from shipboard to scout for a nearby landfall, and so the raven was honored with its own flag as a symbol of its service to these intrepid seafarers.
In the years that followed many flags flew over the North American continent until the Revolutionary War which called for the creation of a truly American flag. In late spring of 1776, General George Washington visited a young Philadelphia war widow Betsy Ross to show her a rudimentary design for an American flag -- thirteen red and white stripes with a blue field and thirteen white stars in the upper left hand corner. On July 4th, four weeks after Betsy Ross' rendezvous with history, the flag she had crafted was adopted by the Continental Congress as the official flag of the fledgling republic.
Today, our flag is displayed on many occasions but perhaps most honorably at funerals for deceased veterans and active members of the armed services. This practice began during the Napoleonic Wars when dead soldiers were carried off in flag-covered caissons. The United States adopted this custom for military funerals. There are very specific requirements for use of the flag in these situations. The flag must always be placed so that the blue star field is at the head of the casket and over the left shoulder of the deceased. The flag is removed before the casket is laid in the grave and the colors are not allowed to ever touch the ground. At the conclusion of the graveside service, the flag is folded in a specific manner -- lengthwise in half and then by triangles until only the blue shield shows -- before it is ceremoniously handed to the next of kin.
Military funerals are increasingly in demand today, and they are now required by law to be provided to families of deceased veterans who request them. Your local neighborhood funeral director or county veterans agency can provide you with information about these special funeral services. Whenever you see the American flag displayed, at a military funeral or a holiday parade or a public building, always give it the honor and respect that it deserves as the symbol of a great and enduring republic and its citizens.