Years ago, when my little brother went to an Air National Guard training school, my family and I went to his graduation. The ceremony included a small “empty chair” ceremony to remember the military’s POWs, MIAs, and the dead, explaining the symbolism of how the table with the empty chair was set.
Neptunus Lex, whom we remember this week (see post below) had a post about Navy ships which follow this tradition at all times. The symbolism explained there is pretty much the same that I heard at my brother’s school graduation, except that they also included a candle.
But probably one reason for the lemons, I just realized, is that the “empty chair” table incorporates things used for giving Catholics (and related faiths) the full Last Rites (Anointing of the Sick, aka Extreme Unction). There’s supposed to be two blessed candles lit on the table next to the bed, if possible. After a priest anoints the dying person with oil of the sick, a bowl of lemon slices and/or a dish of salt are used to cut the oil on the priest’s hands (with either regular bread or linen used to “dry” them and blot the oil from the anointed person). Regular soap is now often used, even in church; but the lemon thing is still valid.
If there’s time, a well-prepared Catholic household is supposed to have such things ready for the priest’s visit. Logically, a well-prepared military unit or warship with a Catholic chaplain (or chaplains with related liturgical practices) would tend to keep such things ready also, if the logistics were reasonable. (Candles being something of a fire hazard on a ship, that would probably not be something you’d leave out as a reminder, whereas lemons and salt aren’t going to hurt anything.)
One of those things they don’t teach Catholics about, these days, but Fr. Z talked about it on his blog. Couldn’t figure out why it had sounded so familiar, until I was directed to the old Neptunus Lex post today.
This Fr. Z post on a how-to video for ceremonies shows how the lemon and bread thing can be done at church, at Baptisms and Confirmations and ordinations and other such oil-related occasions.