Leave an empty seat for the dead
March 7, 2019 11:24 AM   Subscribe

What are some examples of people in any culture/time period commemorating the departed by symbolically using things that are empty/broken/etc? The most common examples I can think of are leaving an empty chair for the deceased and the rendering of clothes during shiva. Not looking for anything representing the future. Examples from fiction/film are ok.
posted by mermaidcafe to Grab Bag (21 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
There are a couple of Military traditions that touch on this, the two I can think of are the Riderless Horse, where the saddle is empty (obviously) and there are a pair of boots (reversed) in the stirrups, and the Missing Man Formation, where one aircraft in the formation visibly breaks away, leaving a conspicuous gap to represent the dead person.
posted by Nice Guy Mike at 11:38 AM on March 7, 2019 [8 favorites]

It's not quite the same, but Ghost Bikes might count.

My spouse's family did the empty chair thing with a passion. Every table setting had a seat for the elder who died at Auschwitz. The chair seat was usually covered in unopened mail and week-old newspapers, 'cause they'd been removed from the table in a hurry before the meal, but the empty chair was always there. I think I'm a fan of the tradition, though the casualness with which everyone else treated it was a bit weird, at least to an outsider.
posted by eotvos at 11:48 AM on March 7, 2019 [7 favorites]

Michigan Stadium's official capacity is 107,601. The "1" represents a seat (it's symbolic not, say, an actual seat with a plaque on it that's kept unoccupied), for Fritz Crisler, an important early athletic director at the school.
posted by dapati at 12:00 PM on March 7, 2019 [3 favorites]

So, when growing up my Vietnamese family would prepare a seat at meals for my dead brother. At other Vietnamese houses the same was done for a relative of theirs ; empty seat, and place setting with bowl of rice.
posted by jadepearl at 12:01 PM on March 7, 2019 [1 favorite]

Oh, are we including individual people personally doing this? If so, then David Lee Roth leaving an empty seat at Van Halen concerts for his grandma as a "fuck you" to the Nazis may count.
posted by jadepearl at 12:05 PM on March 7, 2019 [6 favorites]

The Moso tribe of China near the Tibetan border put a symbol of the deceased, usually clothing, at the head of the table for the funeral banquet.
posted by ananci at 12:08 PM on March 7, 2019 [1 favorite]

After James Gandolfini died, the diner in which the series finale of The Sopranos was filmed left one booth empty, with a “Reserved” sign in his honor.
posted by timetoevolve at 12:16 PM on March 7, 2019 [3 favorites]

Would pouring out malt liquor for your dead homies count?
posted by kevinbelt at 12:33 PM on March 7, 2019 [2 favorites]

In Poland you leave a seat empty at Christmas Eve dinner for "travellers" - a remnant of the Dziady celebration where the seat would be for the spirits of your ancestors.
posted by I claim sanctuary at 12:39 PM on March 7, 2019 [4 favorites]

Another related Jewish mourning ritual is covering mirrors. There is also the tradition of removing a drop of wine from our glasses during the recitation of each plague in the Passover seder.
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 12:44 PM on March 7, 2019 [2 favorites]

The (North American?) custom of leaving a lighted candle in a window for a loved one at war.
posted by humph at 1:22 PM on March 7, 2019

In L.M. Montgomery's novel Rilla of Ingleside, which is set during WWI, the Blythe family sets a plate and leaves a seat for oldest son Jem while he is away for the first Christmas of the war. But they can't bring themselves to continue the tradition on subsequent Christmases during the war when second son Walter also goes to war and there would be two seats empty, or after Walter is killed in combat, the third son Shirley goes to war, and Jem is reported missing in action. However, once the war is over and Jem and Shirley are safely home again, the Blythes begin again to set Walter's place at the Christmas dinner table.
posted by orange swan at 1:41 PM on March 7, 2019 [2 favorites]

Another military one, I don’t remember what it’s called, but they have a small extra table with an extra place setting that remains empty. I’ve seen this as a general nod to those who have sacrificed their lives, not necessarily for a single person, although maybe it’s used that way as well.
posted by sillysally at 2:10 PM on March 7, 2019 [1 favorite]

The Neo-Pagan dumb supper.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 2:21 PM on March 7, 2019 [1 favorite]

Last call for a police officer.
They did this at my cousin's service, just haunting.
posted by BoscosMom at 3:32 PM on March 7, 2019 [3 favorites]

Not sure if this is redundant to your initial description, but here's a listing of empty throne used in different cultures.
posted by effluvia at 3:42 PM on March 7, 2019

Bobbing alongside rowdy crowds of floaters on the Guadalupe River was one special, lonely [inner]tube, set off into the water by a grieving mom in honor of her teen son. [mySanAntonio.com]

Broken columns, severed flowers in Victorian memorials. [BBC]
See also: grave markers featuring a chain with a broken link; broken rings; severed branches; and tree stumps. [TheCemeteryClub.com]

Masonic "widow pins" feature broken columns. [Masonic Lodge of Education; examples at Letchworth's (which dates the jewelry custom to US Civil War widows) and Masonic Supply Shop]

Memorial tattoos featuring broken hearts, severed rope, etc.
Negative space in family photographs (like arranging siblings by age, and deliberately leaving room in the line for a lost child.)
posted by Iris Gambol at 3:45 PM on March 7, 2019 [2 favorites]

Stopping clocks at the time of death was another Victorian mourning custom.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 4:57 PM on March 7, 2019 [2 favorites]

More in the category of broken than empty: Royal Navy ships of sail would sit idle with their sails clewed (tied down) to the yards and not catching any wind and yards acockbill (see how the normally horizontal yards are angled severely?) for a day (or some suitable term) to mourn the passing of a monarch or other royal person, or other suitably senior-ranking person, such as Lord Nelson, and probably a Prime Minister. A funeral aboard ship would also qualify, I expect. To cockbill the yards gives the ship the appearance of total disarray, like a stunned mourner, without actually inducing a disarray that would need mending.
posted by Sunburnt at 8:08 PM on March 7, 2019 [1 favorite]

At our Ranger reunions we set aside a fully appointed table, with a single chair, for our brothers and sisters who have given it all.
posted by mule98J at 12:58 PM on March 8, 2019 [1 favorite]

A bar I sometimes went to had a plaque at one seat at the bar commemorating a regular who had died. I never saw anyone sit there, but I wasn't a regular myself.
posted by The corpse in the library at 4:26 PM on March 8, 2019

« Older Help me understand this hippie/Libertarian term I...   |   Little Bunny Foo Foo...or was it the field mice? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.