The Good Funeral Guide Blog

Wonderful to listen to

Friday, 29 August 2014

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It all began in South Africa. I bet you didn’t know that.

Top Gear tweeted during it. So did Diane Abbot and British Gas.

In Asda, Bournemouth, they played Sweet Soul Music during it.

In Ayrshire they once shockingly forgot to do it at all.

It was transplanted to the UK following a proclamation by King George V:

“All locomotion should cease, so that, in perfect stillness, the thoughts of everyone may be concentrated on reverent remembrance of the glorious dead.”

Yes, you’ve got it: the two minutes’ silence held every year on 11/11 at 11 o’clock. Incredibly effective it was, too, back then. Everyone marvelled at the sudden bottomless silence of Britain’s cities, something never heard before.

Silence is a stiff-upper-lip, emotionally uptight style of commemoration peculiarly typical of its era. So, is silent commemoration of the dead looking a bit dated now that we have become so much more emotionally demonstrative?

Far from it. It not only lives on, it’s spread to mark sad occasions in all sorts of communities.

Beekeepers do it:

‘Stowmarket Group held its AGM on 24th February; 32 members enjoyed a ploughman’s lunch prior to the meeting. Tony Payne (Chair) opened the meeting with a minute’s silence as a tribute to Elaine Buffery who died last year.’

Chimneysweeps do it:

‘It was a great shock to us to learn of the untimely death in September, of a lovely gentleman Allan Lyon from Malton, who never missed our meetings, he had been sweeping 10 years and retired in May. It was rather a sad start to the afternoon having to inform everyone there, most having had long chats with him in previous years. We observed a minutes silence and drank a toast in his memory.’

Pretty much everyone does it.

Newcastle United began their first game of the season with a minute’s silence to mourn the deaths of two fans on MH17. In fact, so many football matches begin with a period of silence to mark the passing of a former player that academics have warned us of the diminishing impact that will result from ‘silence inflation’.

It’s a clever idea but what do academics know? Silent commemoration is here to stay. It exerts huge and compelling bonding power over communities of people. Silence is a very eloquent way of saying ‘You’re one of us, we honour you, we miss you.’

They do it differently in Italy, Italians being more exuberant. There, they start with silence then begin to clap around halfway through, building to a crescendo.

The Liverpool-Juventus game in 2005 was the first time the teams had met since the infamous game of 1985 when 39 Juventus supporters were killed in riots. This time, both sets of fans were on their best behaviour. A minute’s silence was held for Pope John Paul II, who had recently died. The Liverpool fans, unaware of the Italian way of commemoration, were shocked when the opposition fans began to clap. So angry were they at their desecration of the silence that they booed them when they stopped. Tricky moment.

In spite of that, the Italian way of silence-and-applause has caught on at football grounds all over the UK. Fans have clapped Bobby Robson, Nelson Mandela, the victims of Hillsborough.

The minute’s applause has taken its place as the alternative to silence, although as one fan has pointed out, ‘What we will lose is the life-goes-on eruption of the crowd once the referee has signalled the end of the silence. Everybody loves that.’

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8 comments on “Wonderful to listen to

  1. Richard

    Saturday 30th August 2014 at 4:16 pm

    The British period of silence to commemorate the dead or the Italian hand-clapping applause?! Silence is golden on this occasion as it’s so much more refreshingly novel than omniscient noise, and also seems more appropriate to mark solemn moments.

    But balance is all. I’d be bored at both a finger-twiddling Quaker meeting and a loud Born Again convention dominated by some get-rich-quick, shouty, hand-gesturing preacher man as he works his audience into a tizzy. (I’d like to try a silent monastic retreat one day though).

    In the best services, including for me the mass, there’s a time for solitary contemplation, a time for watching and listening, and a time for participating in ritual, words and music.

    Another ritual at recent WWI centenary commemorations contrasts light and dark rather than silence and its opposite. At candle-lit vigils, we’ve seen flames snuffed out at the poignant moment, inspired by wartime Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey’s words, ‘The lamps are going out all over Europe: we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime’.

    And another national contrast that’s struck me is between English and German soldiers’ graves, particularly at the shared St Symphorien Military Cemetery near Mons, Belgium. The Brits have white gravestones on manicured lawns and the Germans have dark stone in woodland glades.

    The colour of stone could be down to the available quarry supplies but it’s been noted before that today’s Germans have a taste for holiday lodges in dense forests while we’re supposed to prefer light and open scenery, hilltop panorama or seas views to the horizon.

    • Richard

      Saturday 30th August 2014 at 4:24 pm

      Thanks for posting the lovely Sounds of Silence, Quokkagirl. Yes to musical interludes!

      And before anyone points it out, I meant omnipresent noise, not omniscient noise, above!

  2. Quokkagirl

    Saturday 30th August 2014 at 7:25 am

    Thoughtful and thought-provoking Richard. Silence is so powerful that it shouldn’t be misused – it should be used with care and consideration. Good ceremony and event leaders have a lot of power in their hands if they choose to use it so yes, silence inflation could easily become a problem in the wrong hands.

    As it’s Saturday, and as it happens, this is on my play list for my funeral. Something for the weekend GFG bloggers.. http://youtu.be/4zLfCnGVeL4. I miss the musical interludes on this site.

  3. Richard

    Friday 29th August 2014 at 9:05 pm

    Ssshhhhhh! Another thoughful post.

  4. Charles

    Friday 29th August 2014 at 9:22 am

    That’s brave, I think – silence making a comeback. The so-called ‘quiet reflection’ to the accompaniment of music is somewhat of a contradiction in terms, perhaps.

    • Tuesday 2nd September 2014 at 8:08 pm

      There are some beautiful pieces which lend themselves to a calming reflective pause in proceedings. Shostakovich’s Gadfly is a personal favourite.

  5. Friday 29th August 2014 at 8:53 am

    sorry, should have added that I meant “a more frequent choice these days in funerals,” of course.

  6. Friday 29th August 2014 at 8:43 am

    Communal silence is a powerful thing, as Quakers, and meditators, know. I find it a more frequent choice these days than it used to be, for “reflection time” or whatever you want to call it. Music still more popular, but silence more frequent than it used to be.

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