What Happens During a Moment of Silence?

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There is beauty in silence. Healing, too, can often happen in silence. For significant or even saddening events, a moment of silence can serve as an important way to bring a group of invested persons together to pay respects. 

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Whether you’ve recently lost a loved one, are remembering a loved one on their birthday, or your friends or family have been affected by something heavy, a planned or recurring moment of silence may be just what you need. 

Planning events to honor significant people and events deserve a bit of planning and care — but don’t worry. We’ll walk you through everything you need to know about what a moment of silence actually entails, how long they should be, how to plan one, and more details you may not consider.

You may also be interested in other memorial service planning tips and the difference between memorials and funerals

What is a Moment of Silence?

A moment of silence may sound self-explanatory; however, there’s a right and a wrong way to go about them. A moment of silence is a period of silent contemplation, prayer, reflection, or meditation. 

Therefore, anyone can effectively observe a moment of silence in a way that’s meaningful to them. A moment of silence does not have to correspond to a particular religion or belief system. In fact, it’s a very unifying way to observe events or occurrences described below. 

Purpose

A moment of silence is often a gesture of respect, particularly in mourning for those who recently died or were part of a tragic event, such as a battle or during a military funeral

Tangible examples similar to moments of silence, or that may co-occur include flying a flag at half-mast or lighting candles. 

When they’re used

As described briefly above, a moment of silence may occur as part of a memorial service, during a funeral or a candlelight vigil, and many other events directly related to death, such as a death anniversary. The beauty of moments of silence, however, is that their intent can be entirely up to you. 

Though it’s unlikely to use a moment of silence to signify a celebratory occasion, you may find that it works for you.

For example, perhaps you’d like to use it as a way to express and reflect on your gratitude. This may work well if you’re planning a celebration of life ceremony. You can frame it in such a way that guests can take this time to reflect on happy times spent with the person being honored. 

ยป MORE: We're so sorry for your loss. This checklist is here to help you through your next steps.

 

How Long is a Moment of Silence?

The length of a moment of silence can vary. A “moment” is often subjective. However, for a moment of silence to be impactful, it should last longer than a minute, and you may determine that a moment of silence may be more meaningful if it is longer than a few minutes. 

The tricky part about having a longer moment of silence, however, is that it may not remain silent. It’s human nature to want to stir, discuss, or need to go about other matters. 

Take this into account when planning your moment of silence. You can likely find the happy medium or a timeframe that’s meaningful to the event.

For example, if you’re honoring a former athlete, perhaps having a moment of silence as long as their PR for a mile, such as five minutes and 28 seconds, would be a nice gesture. 

What are You Supposed to Do During a Moment of Silence?

Once you’ve determined a few more outlying details of your moment of silence, you can get down to further planning. You and your guests can all use the given moment of silence in a slightly different, personal way. 

Some people may feel more comfortable praying, whereas others like to refer to their silence as meditation. The label does not matter, in fact, it all comes down to the intent. 

Use the time intentionally 

One of the quickest ways to ruin anything is to forget what the intent is.

A moment of silence should be a time of utmost peace, and, well, of course, silence. It’s not being harsh or cruel to stand firm that guests should remain absolutely silent, and it may prove worthwhile to discuss the significance of the moment of silence beforehand at length. 

You should know, based on who you invite, how much convincing they may need. Your guests will likely respect your wishes without any issues.

Light candles or join hands

Besides just standing in a circle, group, or other formation in silence, you may also choose to do some sort of symbolic activity. You can light a candle and pass the flame throughout the crowd, join hands, sway together, or all close your eyes.

Based on the intent and who or what the moment of silence is for, you can likely figure out something very unique and personal. 

Keep in mind how it will begin (and end)

Your moment of silence might follow some sort of procession. For example, you may choose to have a moment of silence as a way to end a eulogy. Regardless, it’s important to let your guests know when the moment of silence is going to occur as well as what the expectations are. 

It may also be smart to instruct everyone to have a silent watch or timer handy, or, you can lead or appoint someone to signify the beginning and end. Think mindfully, too, about how you’d like to end the moment of silence and what will occur after it. 

Will you open up the event for guests to share other prayers and stories? Will you all go out to a favorite bar or restaurant? It’s up to you what you think would be the most special and fitting for both the occasion and the group. 

How Do You Plan a Moment of Silence?

Planning a moment of silence may take a bit of coordination, or it may be rather impromptu. Either way, a moment of silence can easily be meaningful with a lot or a little planning. You may choose to outline the details of your moment of silence or other event via official invitations, a social media post or two, via email, or some other way. 

As long as your guests are clear on your wishes and the intent, you should have no issues. When planning a moment of silence, there are also a few other factors you should consider. 

Choose a purposeful location

You may be limited by what location your moment of silence will take place in, or you can get creative. If you and your guests will already be at one location for a funeral service or other ceremony, it may be wise to stick to this location. 

If need be, you can always plan a vigil or similar event at a different location, such as a beach, park, or another place significant to the event or person you’re honoring. For example, humanist funerals incorporate a moment of silence into the expected schedule. 

Invite the right people

For just about any event, big or small, the right people can make all the difference. You don’t have to open up your moment of silence to the entire world, but you also don’t have to be restrictive, either. 

However, it may be wise to only invite those that you know will be respectful of the moment and help you bear the weight of the silence in a respectful manner. If the moment of silence is falling outside the invite of a different event, you should give enough time for guests to adjust their schedules and be able to attend. 

You should also outline the schedule explicitly and allow for guests to park, walk in, and get in the right mindset before the official “moment” occurs. 

Remember the meaning

Getting lost in a moment of silence means it worked. However, there’s a huge difference between losing yourself in a moment and losing the moment itself. In the time leading up to the moment of silence and after, do everything in your power to prepare yourself and your guests to use the time respectfully. 

Remind everyone who or what you’re there to support and why it matters. Give them some points to think about, a breathing pattern to follow, or any other words or advice that will help foster more unity in the moment. 

You should guide and lead — not demand. Assert that they should use the moment in their own way. Allow guests to work through their feelings about the person or event being honored independently but as a group.  

A Lot Can Be Said in Silence

A moment of silence can mean so much more than an absence of sound. It is about honoring a person or event with your undivided reverence and attention. Having a moment of silence either once or annually can serve as an important tradition that you can modify as you see fit.

So often in our lives, we get swept up in constantly doing and rarely take the time to just be. A moment of silence can give us the necessary pause to reflect on our lives and all that we have and that we’ve lost. For more resources about how to live more mindfully as well as how to better grasp end-of-life planning, check out the rest of Cake. 

Looking to read more about public mourning rituals? Read our guides on the National Moment of Remembrance and public mourning.

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