"We shall meet, but we shall miss him; There will be one vacant chair; We shall linger to caress him When we breathe our evening prayer."
— "The Vacant Chair"
Say you have a longtime member of a group, who always sat at a particular chair when the group was doing its thing. Now say that member dies bravely in battle, or is otherwise prevented from returning to the group. The group then honors his memory by making sure the chair he sat in for so long remains empty. Usually this is revealed to the Na´ve Newcomer or someone who doesn't yet know the history behind the chair and goes to sit down in it, unintentionally pressing the group's Berserk Button.
This can be a Death Trope, so this is your spoiler warning. Compare This Is My Chair and Missing Man Formation.
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Referenced by the chairs in Bokurano. Each one is associated with a particular character, and they one by one become empty.
In the first episode of FLCL Naota initially tells Haruko that she's not to sleep on the top bunk, as it belongs to his brother (who is in America playing baseball).
Last Exile: Fam, the Silver Wing: Dio flies his vanship by himself, leaving the back seat empty. That said, he's okay with having passengers as long as they don't use the controls.
There was a tradition at the bar frequented by the Uruz team on Meridia Base in Full Metal Panic! that each member of the team had a reserved seat. Lt. Clouseaux manages to (intentionally) offend the entire team when he sat in the seat reserved for the recently deceased Uruz 1.
In Space Battleship Yamato installments following The Quest for Iscandar, Susumu Kodai (Derek Wildsar), consistently refuses to sit in The Captain's chair left vacant by the death of Captain Okita (Avatar). He retains this aversion even when he is officially made captain during in the Bolar Wars. He prefers his usual battle station position. He does not object, however to Yamamani (or Hijikata in an alternate timeline) takes the chair as he acknowledges their experience being Okita's former colleagues .
Right before the start of the JLA: Obsidian Age story line, there is a page-long sequence showing fish placing shells and other shiny things on Aquaman's empty throne, just to highlight that he's missing, as that fact hadn't been mentioned in that particular series previously. A few issues later, the league finds that he's been transported back in time and enslaved by his ancestors.
After the Fantastic Four retool, and the death of Johnny Storm, Spider-Man (who had replaced Johnny as per Johnny's prerecorded request) was forbidden by Franklin (Johnny's nephew) from taking a certain seat at the table. Said seat was, of course, reserved for Johnny.
One of the seats at the elimination ceremony venue is draped in the dead girl's nightgown and is not used for the rest of the competition.
When the previously eliminated contestants return for the final challenge, her boyfriend and her unsuccessful suitor keep an empty space between them when they approach the bleachers and when they take their seats.
The title characther in Thanks Kyubey gives one in memory of the late Charlotte in one strip. Note that the original source material has no such thing happen because Kyubey has no emotion.
The Red vs. Blue fanfic Phase Two: Betrayal has York getting his team tickets to a live Grifball match. He buys sixteen, even though only seven are still living together at the time.
Who Framed Roger Rabbit: Roger goes to sit in Eddie's brother's chair, only to be yelled at by Eddie. He still leaves his handprint on the chair.
Invoked in The Raid - Redemption, when Sgt. Jaka tells the rookie SWAT team he doesn't want to see any empty seats in the van on the way home from the eponymous raid. Technically, he gets his wish, since the van is destroyed and Jaka never makes it out of the building.
In Nanny McPhee, the mother's chair in the study is a constant symbol of her. The film even begins with a speech about how the chair is empty, and if it were not, there would not be a story.
Non-death example: At the end of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, one of the final shots is of just the Original Series cast on the bridge of the Enterprise-A. Conspicuously, the helmsman's station is not manned (as Sulu is now a captain himself).
In The Lord of the Rings, the kingdom of Gondor has had no king for generations, and the steward has been ruling in the king's place. Even after the line of stewards have given up on the king ever returning, the king's throne remains empty and the steward sits on a smaller throne to the side.
Discworld has a similar tradition, where the throne of Ankh-Morpork remains vacant. Since this is Discworld we're talking about, only the truly deranged mourn the passing of the royal line, and the golden throne itself is mostly gold foil over rotten wood.
In A Christmas Carol and its many adaptations, the Ghost of Christmas Present foresees Tiny Tim's empty chair and his crutch tucked into a corner by next year's Christmas if things do not change from their current course of events. The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come does him one better and shows Scrooge the empty chair, along with Tim's grieving family.
In The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Guide editor Lig Lury Jr. vanished on a lunch break. Because the Editorial Lunch Break had become the stuff of legend for the Guide's workforce and because Lig was already renowned for his epic lunch breaks, he's assumed to have never handed in his editorship and, in spite of the fact that he must be long dead by now, all subsequent editors of the Guide hold the title of "acting editor". Some staff still maintain the romantic notion that Lig will return one day to put in a solid afternoon's work. His office and desk have been preserved in the Guide's head office just as he left them, with the exception of an additional sign: "Lig Lury Jr, Editor (Missing, presumed fed)"
In the Spud Sweetgrass novels, the seat at the local diner where Spud's dead father always used to sit is always kept empty. In his role as narrator, Spud mentions that sometimes a customer won't realize this and will try to move that chair to another table, but his mother and her friends always politely explain the tradition.
In the Star Trek: New Frontier novel "Requiem", the first set after the original Excalibur blew up, the crew takes a post-mortem at a bar, and Shelby insists on keeping a seat free for the missing and presumed dead Captain Calhoun. At the end of the scene, someone asks to take it, and Shelby, now alone, says "Take it. It's just an empty chair."
Subverted: After the death of Emperor Cartagia, Londo ends up temporarily at the head of government in the middle of a crisis. As he is issuing orders to the various members of the court, he takes a seat in the Emperor's throne, to the horror and protest of the others present. He quickly jumps out and apologizes. Then turns to Vir and quips about how it felt very natural to him. Unbeknownst to anyone else in the Court, Londo and Vir were behind Cartagia's death, somewhat adding to their lack of decorum and mourning.
Also played straight, with Minbari dining rituals. An extra table setting is laid out for Valen, a historical figure and religious leader for the Minbari. Before eating, each person at the table places a piece of food on Valen's plate.
Just an episode after they are all but wiped out by a plague, the seat of the Markab ambassador is still in the council chambers, still labeled, only it now sits empty.
Inverted in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine "Who Mourns for Morn". Quark gets a passing customer to sit down in Morn's now empty chair to "keep it warm". Said passing customer is actually the actor who played Morn, out of makeup.
And played straight in TNG's "The Best Of Both Worlds, Part 2", where Riker's refusal to sit in Picard's chair shows both his refusal to acknowledge the loss of Picard, and his reluctance to take on the position of Captain that he held. Guinan eventually kicks his arse into sorting himself out.
Castle, "The Dead Pool": Castle invites his protegee to come to the authors' poker game, and he tries to sit down in a particular chair. The group warns him off, saying "That's Cannell's chair." He then gets a lecture that the group keeps the chair of a dead player empty for a year.
On After the Catch (a segment of Deadliest Catch), after Phil died, they left his chair empty, and hung a picture of him on a column behind it.
After Kate dies on NCIS, the other characters insist on giving her an 'empty desk' memorial. Ultimately, their new teammate is allowed to sit there, either signifying their acceptance of Kate's death and their new teammate, or that having Ziva sit off in at a lonely desk would be awkward for group shots. Either way.
Grey's Anatomy had a variation. After George's death, the residents kept the locker he used empty to show respect. When new residents from Mercy West show up, one of them tries to use the empty locker, which becomes the last straw for George's friend Izzie.
After Phil Hartman died, NewsRadio did an episode acknowedging the death of his character, Bill McNeal. At the end, the others take various items including his desk, until only his empty chair is left.
After Quentin Fields' death in One Tree Hill, Haley prevents anybody from sitting in his desk and later, she and her students proceed to write goodbye messages on his desk in his honor.
After Dick Clark died, his hosting booth in Times Square was not used for New Year's Rockin' Eve 2013.
Several days after Matt Devlin was gunned down on Law & Order: UK, his partner Ronnie and junior CP Alesha Phillips commiserate back at the police station. After Ronnie walked away, Alesha took a moment to gaze at Matt's now deserted chair and desk.
On The Vampire Diaries, after the death of his best friend & drinking buddy Alaric, Damon is shown several times leaving him an empty bar stool (and pouring him a drink) at The Mystic Grill.
In the Monk episode "Mr. Monk Goes to Group Therapy," when Monk has his first group therapy session with Dr. Bell, he notices an empty seat and learns that it belonged to a young woman who used to be in the sessions until she apparently drowned in her swimming pool. That death is later proven to be murder.
The Traveling Wilbury's music video for "End of the Line" cuts to an empty chair during Roy Orbison's verse, as Orbison died prior to shooting the video.
Similarly, the video for Avenged Sevenfold's "Nightmare" ends with a shot of The Rev's unoccupied drum kit.
After Bon Scott's death in 1980, the other members of AC/DC went back to Australia to visit Bon's parents, who got out some chairs for them to sit down. They got out one extra by accident, and the sight of the empty chair caused Bon's mother to break down crying.
In Journey's End, Stanhope chews out Raleigh for sitting on Osbourne's bed after he dies in a raid on the enemy trenches.
This trope is invoked in Les MisÚrables with "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables", but inverted as Marius, the Sole Survivor, remembers the rest of his comrades who died in the uprising.
In the comedy sketch Dinner for One (later famously performed for West German television by British comedians Freddie Frinton and May Warden), the aging socialite Miss Sophie keeps four empty places at her birthday dinner in honour of her gentleman friends, but her butler James has to impersonate each of them and take their toasts after each course, causing him to become increasingly inebriated as the evening progresses.
In Super Robot Wars Original Generation 2, Tetsuya Onodera refuses to take Captain Daitetsu's seat after his death, carrying on as Acting Captain.note Their ship, the Hagane, is one big Yamato reference.Lee Linjun mocks this after his Face-Heel Turn, which makes his losing to Tetsuya all the more satisfying to watch.
Dangan Ronpa's trial room has a place for everyone to stand. After someone dies, a monochrome portrait on a simple stand is set up there. Monokuma even makes sure to adjust it to the proper height, so that the picture's right where their face would've been were they still alive...
In the last chapter of Worm, Tattletale arranges the seating at the meeting to include extra chairs for Alec, Brian, and Taylor.
Many Christian churches have a chair for Jesus, which is otherwise unused.
A similar custom occurs in Judaism: the door is left open during the Passover Seder to invite in "the stranger" (partly a token of Sacred Hospitality, partly an expectation that the Prophet Elijah might show up at any moment). A cup is also left for Elijah, and a seat is sometimes left for him/the stranger as well.
There's a short story by Harry Turtledove in which "the stranger" does arrive in the shape of a Golem who rescues the Jewish family in question from the Nazi occupation of Poland.
In the Amish community, whenever a someone leaves the community, from then on their family keeps setting them a place at the dinner table. Apparently them knowing that this is occurring is supposed to try to guilt them into coming back.
Many formal dinners in the Canadian military (and others) have an empty chair in memory of fallen members of the military.
For the American military, the custom is to include a military cap with the table setting, especially for tables set for fallen members of the various branches, as if they had simply walked away and would be back any moment.
Common in military memorials, in both the Missing Man Formation, and the tradition of riderless horses during funeral processions.
Auto racing has a version where pole position on the starting grid is left empty in respect of a driver that recently died. At the 1994 Monaco Grand Prix both front row positions were left empty in memory of Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger, who both died during the previous race weekend.
Another variation is the standard practice of owners and drivers of historic race cars to leave the original driver's name tag (usually on the side of the cockpit) on the car when competing, even though that driver may be long gone.
Conservative commentator Barbara Olson was a passenger on American Airlines Flight 77, en route to participate in a taping of the television show Politically Incorrect in Los Angeles, when the plane was flown into the Pentagon in the September 11 terrorist attacks. When the show resumed taping after a brief hiatus, host Bill Maher left an empty seat on the panel for a week in Olson's honor.
Ten years later, 2977 chairs were placed on the lawn in New York City's Bryant Park in memory of all killed in the attacks.
The "Field of Empty Chairs" at the Oklahoma City National Memorial.
To prove that this trope isn't necessarily a Death Trope, the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize ceremony kept a chair empty for that year's winner, Liu Xiaobo, who was being held as a political prisoner in China at the time. The prize was placed on his empty chair.
At many high school and college graduation ceremonies, if a member of the class died before graduating, a seat is sometimes left empty to mark where they would have sat.
The Russian Imperial throne was recently restored and put in the halls of Kremlin to serve as one of these. Russia isn't a monarchy anymore and won't be anytime soon, but the empty throne stands there, exactly like in Gondor and Ankh-Morpork.
The "Speechless"◊ lithograph created in memoriam for Mel Blanc is a variation on this (it's a microphone instead of a chair).
Peter Jennings' chair on ABC's World News Tonight remained vacant since his death in 2005.
Peanuts creator Charles M. Schulz built and owned the Redwood Empire Ice Arena (aka Snoopy's Home Ice) in his hometown of Santa Rosa, California. The arena has a small restaurant called The Warm Puppy Cafe, where Schulz would eat daily at the same table. While he was alive the cafe kept a RESERVED sign on the table when he wasn't there. Since he passed away the sign has been left on the table permanently.