Despite the fact that the couple has listed the ceremony start time on everything from their invitations to their wedding website, there's always a handful of guests that arrive just as the processional music begins to play. While it's not always their fault—traffic, illness, or bad directions might all be to blame—a late-arriving guest can be unintentionally disruptive. This begs the question: Should the couple or another wedding guest ever save seats for those who might arrive late?
While it might be tempting to block off a row of seats so you know that late-arriving guests can quickly sneak into your ceremony, Lisa Costin, wedding planner and co-founder and creative director of A Charming Fete, thinks the only time seats should be "reserved" is if they're for immediate family, the bridal party, or another honored guest. "Typically the first couple rows of chairs/pews will be marked 'reserved' for these guests so it's not necessary for another guest to feel the need to save them a spot, but it depends on the guest," she says. Aside from this group, she doesn't think it's proper to reserve a ceremony seat for those that turn up late. "If the guest arrives late, they should enter very quietly and take a seat in the back row so they don't disturb other guests or get in the way of the photographer."
The one thing the bride and groom shouldn't do? Hold up the ceremony to give those who are late a chance to get settled. "Per etiquette, a wedding ceremony should not start more than 15 minutes after the time listed on the formal invitation, so guests should know to arrive prior to that time so they can be comfortably in their seats before the processional begins," says Costin. "Lateness is typically not tolerated for the ceremony and some strict churches will actually close the doors and not allow late arriving guests to enter until after the full processional is complete; however, in an emergency situation, things can happen so you want to be fair and reasonable."
What about guests saving seats for other attendees? According to Jodi R.R. Smith, owner of Mannersmith Etiquette Consulting, in Marblehead, Massachusetts, there's a right and a wrong way to do this. In her opinion, the etiquette depends entirely on the type of guest. "If it's your spouse or date, child or parents and you have timely and direct confirmation that they will be arriving within the next 20 minutes, you may place your shawl over the chair next to you to save them a seat," she says. "But when it's going to be more than 20 minutes, do not bother saving a seat." If it's someone non-immediate to you (an acquaintance or perfect stranger whom you met in the hall), she advises against holding a place for them, as there could be another guests elsewhere in the venue also holding a spot.
Saving seats can not only serve as a distraction, but the concept of guests arriving late can hold up the start time of the wedding—especially if these late attenders are key members of the bridal party. During Kansas City wedding planner, Sarah Quinlivan's career, only two of her weddings have started late and both were due to special circumstances. "Once it is 'go time' for both the ceremony and reception, my team is instructed to not let anyone in or get in the way of any possible photos until after the bride, groom, and bridal party have made their entrance," she says. "If guests are late to the ceremony, we quietly sneak them in and find the best seats we can."