Faded, worn and tattered, countless American flags sit in attics and storage facilities across the Triangle, gathering dust and mothballs.
The owners of the flags don’t want to toss Old Glory into the garbage, and they simply don’t know what to do with the banners no longer fit for flying.
But on Saturday afternoon, against a backdrop of blue skies and soldiers’ gravestones, about 40 old flags got a proper sendoff thanks to a Cary Girl Scout. Meredith McNamee, 16, organized a flag retirement ceremony at Oakwood Cemetery as part of her Gold Award project, the Girl Scouting equivalent of the Eagle Scout rank for boys.
Cemetery director Robin Simonton said she hopes the ceremony – a first for Oakwood – will become an annual event. “What better place to respect the flag than in our Field of Honor,” where military veterans are buried, she said.
Flag burning sometimes has a negative connotation, but it’s the appropriate method for disposing of an old flag. In the flag retirement ceremony, flags are cut into four pieces before being placed into a fire. One of the four sections is the 50 stars representing each state. “We leave the blue field intact because no one should ever let the Union be broken,” McNamee said.
McNamee and her fellow Girl Scouts built a fire in a metal barrel – donated by a Pittsboro business owner whose only condition was that the girls retire his flag. Once the fire burned out and the colors turned to black, the ashes were buried near the Field of Honor flagpole, just a few yards from the soldiers who fought under the Stars and Stripes.
McNamee got the idea for her Gold Award project a couple of years ago when her troop visited Oakwood Cemetery on Flag Day. “I’ve always liked cemeteries because they’re very peaceful,” she said. “I’m also interested in history.”
The flag retirement event isn’t McNamee’s only contribution to Oakwood. She’s also researching a few of the 22,000 people buried there to expand the cemetery’s new smartphone app. The app, which was released for iPhone and Android in December, allows visitors to locate relatives and famous graves such as those of Sen. Jesse Helms and N.C. State basketball coach Jim Valvano.
McNamee is compiling details about Oakwood’s lesser-known denizens to add to the app this May. “She’s done some great research,” Simonton said. “They all have a story to tell.”
The flag ceremony and smartphone app are the latest efforts to make Oakwood’s 102 acres of graves a more “vibrant” place, Simonton said. She’s working to bring back the tradition of cemeteries as gathering places, and she’s getting help from teens like McNamee, who says she’d like to continue volunteering after her Gold Award project is complete.
McNamee is enlisting other groups to continue the flag retirements each February, and part of the app she’s working on fits the state’s fourth-grade curriculum.
“I’m going to be working with local schools in the hopes that they’ll take field trips out here,” she said.