The eloquence of silence

Charles 14 Comments

Posted by Georgina Pugh

On Friday the autumn sun was just too much – I had to leave my cave like dwelling and head out somewhere you can touch the sky. On the advice of a friend I found myself at the edge of the North York Moors, just past the aptly named ‘surprise view’ at the village of Gillamoor, searching for an old Quaker Burial Ground. In the 1600s non-conformist churches were persecuted and not permitted to bury their dead in consecrated ground so Quakers used private land.

Lowna was used as a cemetery for Quakers between 1675 and 1837 – I guess even after the ban was lifted, the Friends still preferred their lovely corner of peace as the final resting place for their earthly remains.

The burial ground has well and truly returned to nature but remains defined by dry stone walls just high enough to create a space that feels gently enclosed and yet part of the woodlands that surround it. A beck flows nearby. There is an old bench on which you can sit (so long as you are happy to ignore the ‘no entry- falling branches’ health and safety warning sign) and soak up the peace and quietly blessed atmosphere that in my experience always pervades Quaker spaces.

It was quite easy to imagine the Friends all those generations ago, quietly and reverently carrying the bodies of their dead to Lowna and laying them down into the earth – perhaps a prayer if anyone felt moved to speak one, otherwise the rich silence saying all that needed to be said.

I have often mused how afraid we are of silence these days –I used to teach a meditation class at a boarding school in Surrey that was originally established with an hour of silence enshrined in each day. The headmaster described how over the years the ‘Frensham Silence’ had shrunk, being slowly squeezed out by various (I’m sure noble) activities until it was completely absent in the modern school. This seemed an interesting example of how silence has perhaps lost its value in modern society – it’s just not considered productive enough.

I am curious to know of others’ views/experience of weaving silence into modern funerals. I sometimes suggest to a family they might like to have some brief silence as part of a funeral ceremony and sometimes they agree.

Sometimes those silences feel natural and rich and sometimes you can feel people are just not comfortable with it……. Personally I love words and music but I also love quiet and instinctively I feel it has its part to play in a ‘good’ funeral but the whys and hows – I have my thoughts but it would be lovely to hear yours.

Here is the ‘surprise view‘.


  1. Charles

    Beautiful views, in every sense. Thank you.

    My own practice is to introduce a sense of silence by tending, in some parts of a funeral process, to slow right down, and leave gaps between ‘paragraphs’ or actions. This is separate and different from ‘declaring’ a silence, which can be difficult for some people, especially if they are not accustomed to the glorious spaciousness of quiet. I try to introduce silences in a way that is enfolded in a sense of reassurance that I am on the case, that it isn’t just a blunder . . . .

  2. Charles

    I also love the space that silence brings to a ritual. We find that people are comfortable with it, as long as it is clearly explained before hand. Involving people in a ritual starts with sharing with them the meaning and intention of what is to come. Far from robbing what follows of any power, it gives people a stake in what unfolds, an emotional investment. Explaining how this silence will be broken is equally important. It stops that pregnant anticipatory vibe as the silence reaches it’s end.

  3. Charles

    Lovely evocation of the depth and power of silence, Georgina, it made me think of this from ‘The Screwtape Letters’ which describes heaven as “the regions where there is only life and therefore all that is not music is silence” Wormtongue goes on to say:
    ‘Music and silence—how I detest them both! How thankful we should be that ever since our Father entered Hell—though longer ago than humans, reckoning in light years, could express—no square inch of infernal space and no moment of infernal time has been surrendered to either of those abominable forces, but all has been occupied by Noise—Noise, the grand dynamism, the audible expression of all that is exultant, ruthless, and virile—Noise which alone defends us from silly qualms, despairing scruples, and impossible desires. We will make the whole universe a noise in the end. We have already made great strides in this direction as regards the Earth. The melodies and silences of Heaven will be shouted down in the end. But I admit we are not yet loud enough, or anything like it.’

    Of course great progress has been made since Screwtape was written back in the 40s.

  4. Charles

    Invaluable – what insights are here for those who care to reflect on them and use them! I’ve found that most people I’ve worked with are nervous of a declared period of silence, maybe worried that they’ll fill the silence with sobs.

    Personally, I feel communal silence is powerful and valuable – certainly found it so in a wedding for two people one of whom had a Quaker background, and everyone seemed to value the quiet pause in the ceremony.

    But Kathryn’s point is very helpful – short silences can provide a very effective focus, and it is not too difficult to make it clear that they are focused, and not just a period of incompetent terror on the part of the celebrant! I’ve learned to pause more, and just a few seconds can make a big difference.

    Recently, the start of a funeral was delayed because key mourners were late getting there from the station. The chapel was full, and whilst the entry music was playing, people were chatting quietly in the usual way. The music came to an end, people stopped chatting, and the silence deepened. I had explained why we were to starting.

    At first I thought I would ask for the music to be re-played, but then I re-tuned to the nature of the silence. My feeling was that it provided a strong reflective focus for what was about to start, and people were not fidgeting, so I let the quietness continue for a couple of minutes. I think it helped launch the whole ceremony. I hope I was right – I could hardly run a questionnaire about it afterwards.

  5. Charles

    It certainly sounds as if it was right, GM — literally.

    When I wor a lad, sitting in silence was a form of punishment just short of a sound and savage thrashing. My generation’s early experiences of it may have been unhelpful. I guess its purpose in a funeral needs to be spelled out, otherwise people may just regard it as a vacuum.

  6. Charles

    I think there are many different kinds of silence. Silence at a funeral can be symphonic when everyone contributes their own silence to it, understanding what it’s for and making good use of it. But, as Ru points out, that often needs explaining, and it always needs a sympathetic attitude; it can just be an embarrassing silence among a large crowd of people in black clothes at a crematorium, who came expecting ‘the normal thing’, where all that’s expected of them is the appropriate acted expressions of sympathy and to swallow some indigestible vol-au-vents.

    1. Charles

      From Silence to Vol-aux-vents –
      how did we lose the relevance?
      Our memories ain’t like elephants’,
      it’s just our mind that gallavants!

  7. Charles

    Ah, Jonathan, this post was naturally going to divide into a game of two halves. Because that’s what the introduction of silence often induces in different congregations. The gathering which has things explained or has an innate understanding of what a profound silence can mean – highly affecting, and a profound feeling of communal harmony. And the gathering which really does nothing but wait for the next piece of action to start – and that’s where the shopping lists start up…or wondering what time you’ll finish because the kids need picking up…or that’s a lovely shade of pink curtain around the catafalque…or I wonder if that man in front would notice if I picked that cat hair off his lovely dark suit…

    I think half the trouble is that silence is a skill. And it’s not often rehearsed enough for people to tap into when asked…and this from a woman who has Radio Four on intravenous drip.

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