In the American South, people used to say that a man's standing in the community could be judged by the number of plates his widow had to return after his funeral. The bounty of foods spread out for mourners in the South is legendary, fondly chronicled in novels and short stories. As the folk artist Kate Campbell sang in “Funeral Food,” in 1998, “We sure eat good when someone dies.” Fried chicken, baked ham, potato salad, deviled eggs, rolls, pound cake, and endless pies filled the home, brought by friends, family, and neighbors.
Funeral food is more than a southern ritual. All over America, funeral food is both comforting and practical, giving mourners something to do, surrounding the bereaved with proof that life goes on, and relieving the family of the burden of feeding guests. In many regions, the best-known funeral foods are casseroles—familiar, practical, and transportable. Utah is known for “funeral potatoes,” a mixture of hash browns, sour cream, and cream soup that is topped with a cornflake crust. The dish is so common that it was one of the images used on pins for the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.
In the early twenty-first century, the fried chicken may be takeout and the ham is spiral cut, but the impulse to accompany mourning with food is the same as it always has been. That funeral food is less likely to come from busy neighbors and more often from restaurants and caterers is, in a sense, a return to old ways. Providing food and edible mementos at funerals has always been a business. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, funeral tokens, particularly funeral biscuits, were used in many communities. Like the cake slices given to departing wedding guests, funeral biscuits stamped with symbolic images were given as tokens or were served after the funeral, often with wine. William Woys Weaver, in his book America Eats: Edible Forms of Folk Arts (1989), records many designs, including hearts, cherubs, and hourglasses. Providing food for mourners who traveled long distances was such a burden that it was sometimes accounted for in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century estate inventories. In the North Carolina Archives in Raleigh, the historian James Jordan III found the following in the 1779 inventory of the estate of Timothy Clear, a New Bern merchant: “(In the trunks) No. 3 a case with 10 bottles three of them full of wine—expended at his funeral … No. 6 one iron-bound case, key found, contains 11 bottles, 6 full wine … used at his funeral … one half of one keg used … ditto.”
Not all funeral foods have disappeared. Funeral pie is still found in Amish and Pennsylvania Dutch communities. According to some sources, the simple filling of raisins and sugar is made from inexpensive staples a homemaker would have had available at any time of the year. However, some historians note that before the twentieth century, raisins had to be seeded. Going to the trouble to make a raisin-baked pie showed how much the cook valued the deceased. The following are examples of rituals that continue in some form among ethnic groups in the United States.
Se'udat havra'ah (there are various spellings), the Jewish meal of condolence, is loving and practical. The first meal served to the bereaved after the burial, se'udat havra'ah is prepared by friends or relatives from their own food. This practice can be seen as life-giving: Because the foods are prepared by others, mourners are obligated to eat. Many of the foods served are symbolic. Round foods are often used, to signify the continuance of life. Commonly used foods are round breads, such as challah, and lentils, used both for their round shape and because of a tradition that lentils were prepared by Isaac after he heard of the death of his father, Abraham. Hard-boiled eggs are served without salt. The eggs symbolize the cycle of life, and the lack of salt may symbolize the end of tears. Salt on the Passover seder table represents the tears of Hebrew slaves.
Mexican funerals may include treasured foods, such as mole and tamales, but it is the annual commemoration of those who have died that is best known. In Mexico Dias de las Muertos (Days of the Dead) is a week-long community event leading up to All Souls Day, November 2. Because the dead are often returned to Mexico for burial, it is a much smaller observance in the United States. In communities with small or developing Mexican communities, Day of the Dead may be noted only as a folk festival. The traditional bread, pan de muertos, can be found in cities with large enough Mexican populations to support traditional bakeries. Lightly sweet and covered with sugar, the bread is made in various shapes, including bodies decorated with lumps of dough that represent the skeleton and round shapes that represent the soul.
Italians mark All Souls Day with special cookies. Called fave dei morti (beans of the dead) and osso dei morti (bones of the dead), these are very hard, dry cookies, often containing chunks of almonds and shaped to resemble beans or bones. The beans have various meanings. Some stories connect them to immortality and the underworld. In other explanations, fava beans were used to weight the eyes of the dead. Osso dei morti, with a dry texture resembling chunks of bone, are more common in Italian-American bakeries and are sold all year despite their macabre name.
In Chinese communities ancestors are honored participants in the lives of the living. At funerals symbolic foods are taken to the grave as a last offering—piles of oranges to symbolize good luck and roasted chickens or ducks to represent a whole life. After being offered to the deceased, these dishes or duplicates may be served to mourners as a way of sharing a last meal with the loved one. On the first anniversary of the death, on the person's birthday, or during the spring festival of Ching Ming, the food offerings may be repeated.
Rather than food brought by others, a unique food served at Greek funerals is made by the family of the deceased and given to mourners. Koliva (or kolyva) is a sprouted wheat salad, taken from Jesus's words in John 12:24: “Unless a wheat grain falls in the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” Preparation of koliva is a two-day process that ideally involves the family. Wheat is soaked overnight and then boiled and mixed with toasted sesame seeds, raisins, nuts, parsley, and sometimes pomegranate seeds. Sometimes sweetened, the mixture is dried, shaped in a mound, covered with bread crumbs, and topped with confectioners' sugar. The top is decorated with icing or Jordan almonds in the sign of the cross and the deceased's initials. The koliva is taken to the church and distributed after the funeral as a symbol of immortality and resurrection.
Food for the Ancestors [documentary]. Food for Thought Productions, Chicago 1999.Find this resource:
Kolatch, Alfred. The Jewish Mourner's Book of Why. David, Middle Village, NY 1993.Find this resource:
Koliva Program of Ascension of Our Lord Greek Orthodox Church, Lincolnshire, Ill. “Index of Philoptochos.” http://www.ascensiongoc.com/philoptochos.Find this resource:
Levine, Rabbi Aaron. To Comfort the Bereaved. Aronson, Northvale, NJ 1996.Find this resource:
Nathan, Joan. The Jewish Holiday Kitchen. Schocken, New York 1998.Find this resource: