The meaning of that carefully set, empty restaurant table on Remembrance Day

Opportunity to explain military custom bittersweet for veteran and student

As someone who has always loved cooking for family and friends, Matthew van Erp gravitated toward a culinary education after retiring as an engineer with the Canadian Armed Forces in 2019.

matthew van erp, nait hospitality management student and canadian armed forces veteran“Kitchen operations are actually based on the ‘brigade system,’” says van Erp (Culinary Arts '21, Professional Meat Cutting and Merchandising '20), referring to the often regimented hierarchy and clarity of roles in many restaurants.

“The structure is very similar to the military. And the stress levels and the precision was very familiar for me.”

After discovering how well his personality fit with the customer-facing front of house, van Erp carried on to become a Hospitality Management student. Now, he’s learning skills that he hopes to put to use in developing a retreat for veterans recovering from injuries, including post-traumatic stress.

“It's one of those things where helping others helps me,” he says.

Members of the military were also on van Erp’s mind as he recently explained the "Table of the Fallen" to fellow hospitality and culinary students.

“There are a lot of different customs in the military but this one is very appropriate for a hospitality dining room setting,” says van Erp, whose proposal to present on the symbolism of the table was embraced by the program chair.

“It’s good to make sure other people know the significance of Remembrance Day,” he says. “But, yeah, there are a lot of mixed feelings about friends I've lost, too.

“Setting the table, it almost felt like a setting for my comrades who will never be here to see it.”

Here, we share the meaning of the carefully set but conspicuously empty table you that might encounter in a restaurant at this time of year, as van Erp shared it with colleagues of a second career that reminds him of some of the things he appreciated most about his first.

The Table of the Fallen explained

“The Table of the Fallen is for someone who has fallen in battle or is a prisoner of war and can’t be with their family,” says van Erp. “It has a lot of meaning.”

This is what its elements represent.


Round table – The circle stands for the “everlasting concern” for those not with us.

White tablecloth – This symbolizes the “purity of the individual’s intent when they went away to serve and defend their country.”

Single red rose – The flower stands for the love of friends and family for the person who was lost.

Red ribbon – Tied around the vase, the ribbon represents the ongoing determination to account for those who might be still be missing.

Slice of lemon – Placed on a bread plate, “This represents the bitterness of war.”

Salt – Alongside the lemon, this stands for tears shed.

Inverted glasses – “The individual can no longer toast with us.”

Holy book – If the person was religious, a representation of their faith may also be part of the setting.

Military paraphernalia – An object specific to a particular military group may also be included.

Empty chair – Even though they are not with us, “they are still part of us,” says van Erp. “We still remember them.”

Subscribe to receive more great stories every month

Find out more news about NAIT, stories about our alumni and their impact on their communities, and useful how-to content featuring our experts.

Sign up today »