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Empty Chairs – Remembering and Ritualizing

  • Empty Chairs – Remembering and Ritualizing

As a researcher and teacher of ritual studies, I am fascinated by the ways we commemorate, or mark, important passages and happenings.

I just spent time teaching at a gathering with all the clergy of the Oklahoma Conference of the United Methodist Church and some of their worship personnel. It was a deep, rich time of worship and learning together. At the end of the event early Tuesday afternoon, I realized I had time to go see the National Memorial in downtown Oklahoma City before going to talk to students and faculty at Saint Paul School of Theology/Oklahoma campus. So I nonchalantly asked one of the hosting pastors about getting down there. She said, “I’d love to take you because… well… [long pause]… my father was killed in that attack.” Gulp. What I thought was going to be a trip to satisfy my “fascination” with symbolic sites turned into an experience of a much more personal and powerful witness to the devastation of senseless violence.

It was also a reminder of the power of symbol and the power of the visual/sculptural arts to express what words often cannot.  Empty chairs lit from underneath represent each of the victims killed in the blast in rows representing each floor of the building. Smaller chairs represent children, of which there were many. Water forms a reflecting pool spanning the length of the building where a lit “9:01” and “9:03” on walls at each end stand like sentinels declaring the time “before” and “after” the second that would change lives forever. A survivor tree that withstood the blast has had its saplings nurtured into gifts of life and hope for those whose lives were affected. And the fence outside the memorial that was filled to overflowing with messages and mementos in the months afterwards still has to be cleaned off and archived at least every 60 days, the Head of Archives and Education told me.

So many things about this site are instructive for our own rituals of remembrance (such as All Saints coming up). How could you use these or other ideas powerfully in worship?

Object of significance: an empty chair evokes so much in such a simple way. Water carries messages of soothing, calming qualities but also links to our eternal life in Jesus Christ through baptism. Tree and sapling images carry wonderful life/death/rebirth images.

Place of significance: a bow or flower on the pew spot that someone occupied that is no longer with us can be evocative. And momentos like the ones sitting in the picture boxes of all the victims in Oklahoma (a personal Bible, a favorite toy, a trophy or medal) hold so much memory and connection, even for those who didn’t know the deceased.

Time of significance:  I think it is advantageous that the timing of All Saints happens just as we are about to roll into a season of holidays that can be difficult for folks who have lost loved ones. Perhaps making a special effort to contact these folks and invite them to be there and is an effort well-worth making.

Message of significance: the entrance to the National Memorial contains the mission statement of the site. “May all who leave here know the impact of violence. May this memorial offer comfort, strength, peace, hope and serenity.” What is your church’s mission concerning addressing violence in your community, your world?  Whether or not the people you remember from your community were victims of violence, we are called in our worship to remember beyond the boundaries of our own walls and decry injustice in all forms.


Using the same 360 technology as the Worship Design Studio site, take a virtual tour of the Memorial site:



See more about the symbolism of the site:



See several ideas for All Saints worship in the Worship Design Studio



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