The empty chair; Veterans organizations, funeral home develop a special symbol

Published 7:45 am Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Tradition and symbolism is deeply woven into military funerals, from the flag-draped casket with the blue field over the left shoulder to the honor guard to the sounding of taps.

An Austin funeral home and veterans organizations have added a special meaning to an empty chair.

“The Empty Chair is a visual symbol of respect, gratitude and appreciation,” said Mary Kittelson, community services director for Worlein Funeral Home in Austin. “It is left empty to signify that the deceased will be missed, that we recognize their contributions and sacrifices, and that their service to our country will not be forgotten.”

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Worlein’s Empty Chair was less noticeable and less understood in its beginning.  Funeral directors at Worlein had simply left one of the regular chapel chairs empty in the military escort section, she said. That didn’t seem to accomplish what they hoped: an increased awareness of the “unique sacrifice made by veterans and their families,” Kittelson said.

“We felt that most individuals attending the service of a veteran were unaware of the significance of this empty chair,” she said. “Discussion began with our staff on how we could bring more meaning to this part of a military honor service.”

In the fall of 2016, Worlien representatives met with military escort leaders of American Legion Post 91 and VFW Post 1216, and presented their new Empty Chair idea. The organizations were receptive, Kittelson said.

The new Empty Chair is  solid wood with a full back and was painted by local artist Sandy Jones. Local seamstress Nancy Cox sewed four pillows, each designed to represent one of the four  service branches: Air Force, Army, Marine Corps and Navy. The appropriate pillow is placed on the chair during services.

The Empty Chair debuted on May 26, the Friday of Memorial Day weekend at a military honors funeral.

Because education and awareness were part of the goal in creating the Empty Chair, a handout explaining its meaning is given out with the memorial folder to those attending a service with military honors.

A framed print of the chair, complete with explanation is also on display in the chapel.