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Understanding the moment of silence tradition

The tradition of observing a moment of silence has become a common way to honor the deceased, but it’s also regarded as a unique opportunity to take some time out of your busy life to slow down, pause, and reflect — even for just a few minutes. 

A moment of silence is a quiet period where those gathered silently contemplate and reflect — an opportunity to take time to honor and remember the deceased. Moments of silence have become commonplace when recognizing natural disasters, tragic events, acts of terrorism, or individual deaths. 

You may have witnessed moments of silence for the victims of 9/11 on the anniversary of the tragedy, or perhaps you participated in a candlelight vigil for someone who passed away in your community. Alternatively, maybe your school observed a silent moment each morning.

Whether you’re new to this tradition or not, there’s a good chance you have some questions about the origin and etiquette associated with this silent practice. Our guide provides some information about this tradition — when it started, what to expect during a moment of silence, and why it’s important. 

A history of the moment of silence tradition: Significance and etiquette

The moment of silence tradition has roots in religious funeral services and practices, but there are two theories regarding when the moment of silence tradition became a common practice to publicly honor the dead. Both stories occurred around the same time so there is some overlap in the details. 

Read more: Christian funeral traditions and etiquette

Moment of silence history

One theory attributes the moment of silence concept to Australian journalist Edward George Honey, and the other credits South African politician James Percy Fitzpatrick with the idea. 

According to the first version, Honey wrote to the London Evening News in 1918 after the war, suggesting a five-minute period of silence to recognize those who lost their lives in World War I. Under the pen name Warren Foster, he allegedly wrote, “I would ask for five minutes; five little minutes only. Five silent minutes of national remembrance. A very sacred intercession.”

There’s a memorial placard dedicated to Honey in Melbourne, Australia, that reads, “In memory of Edward George Honey who died in 1922, a Melbourne journalist who, while living in London, first suggested the solemn ceremony of silence.”

In the other version, it’s believed Fitzpatrick wrote a letter that was forwarded to King George V, recommending the observance of a two-minute moment of silence on Armistice Day, November 11, to commemorate those who died in World War I. Fitzpatrick’s letter said, “That at the hour when the Armistice came into force, the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, there may be for the brief space of two minutes a complete suspension of all our normal activities … so that in perfect stillness, the thoughts of everyone may be concentrated on reverent remembrance of the glorious dead.”

Regardless of who first introduced this idea, King George V issued a proclamation to observe a moment of silence in what’s now thought to be the first instance of a moment of silence tradition. 

When were the first two minutes of silence held?

King George V proclaimed November 11, 1919, as Remembrance Day. Now known as Veterans Day in the U.S. and Armistice Day in Europe, this first observance of the day was dedicated to honoring those who died in the line of duty in World War I. His proclamation called for a two-minute silence to remember those who gave the ultimate sacrifice (perhaps inspired by Honey and/or Fitzpatrick). Today, the United Kingdom and other Commonwealth members still participate in two minutes of silence on November 11. 

What is the origin of the one-minute silence?

It’s believed the original minute of silence tradition has transformed over the years, eventually getting pared down to the more common 60-second version we see today. However, you may still experience moments of silences that last for several minutes at a time, depending on the circumstance.

Moment of silence in schools

As the history of this tradition suggests, a silent prayer is often used as a way to honor the deceased, but that’s not the only time you may come across the practice. In fact, many schools hold a moment of silence each morning to encourage students to reflect, pray, or meditate before resuming their studies. Some see it as a way to ground themselves and recalibrate for the day ahead. 

This practice in school dates back to the 1980s, and currently, more than 30 states have moment of silence or school prayer legislation in place, requiring students to observe one before the start of class. 

Minute of silence etiquette 

Now that you know a little bit more about the moment of silence history, we’ll discuss what to expect when you participate in one. 

How to announce a moment of silence for deceased

A presenter may announce a minute of silence in honor of a person — or group of people — at any special event, such as a funeral, memorial service, candlelight vigil, or even a concert or sporting event. 

They’ll usually start by giving a short speech or introduction regarding the deceased and maybe even reciting a prayer. Then, they’ll invite everyone to join the moment of silence by saying something like, “Let us take a moment to silently honor them,” or “Please join me in for a moment of reflection.” This is everyone’s cue to observe a period of silence. 

How long should a moment of silence be?

Typically it’s around one to three minutes, but the time doesn’t have to be exact. It’s more about the intention behind the event then exactly how long you observe it. The presenter announcing the moment of silence will determine when the period of silence starts and ends. 

What are you supposed to do during a moment of silence?

During this time of reflection, participants usually remove their hats, bow their heads or nod to one another, and close their eyes. Depending on the occasion, those gathered may hold hands or light candles. There are no rules regarding what to do during this quiet time — some may meditate, while others will say a silent prayer or simply sit in silence. But above all, it’s important to refrain from talking or making any movements that may be distracting to others.

At the conclusion of the time, the presenter will usually say “thank you” or something similar to signify that the moment is over.  

Participating in a moment of silence is a beautiful observance to honor the life of someone who has passed. There’s something so peaceful about watching everyone around you slow down and pause for just a moment or two. And for those mourning, this can be a particularly profound and comforting experience. 

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