What to make of the lavish feasts that come after a funeral?
When I attended my first funeral, at age 27, I cried a lot, even though I didn’t know the deceased, my sister-in-law’s father. My grandparents all died before I turned 20 and lived 1250 miles away. Living as my family did on a poor college professor’s salary, attending funerals wasn’t going to happen. Add to that my mother’s extreme reluctance to even speak of her own mortality and you have a partial explanation for my absence at prior funerals.
Since death is not something that modern Americans handle well in spite of its prevalence in the media and films – all you need to do is read the classic The American Way of Death Revisited (2000) by Jessica Mitford for proof of that – so you can imagine my shock when we traipsed down to the basement of the church, where long folding tables bowed under the weight of the food brought in by the Church Ladies and others.
People stood around the tables lined up on threadbare gray carpeting, laughing, talking, whispering condolences to the family. Eating potato salads, baked beans, sweet Jell-o salads stuffed with nuts and marshmallows, sliced sweet ham, gooey cakes of every size and shape, and lots of buns, as my mother-in-law called dinner rolls. Southern funerals add such dishes as macaroni and cheese, fried chicken, and pimento cheese sandwiches.
It was not until I had several more funerals under my belt that I finally could see the importance of these affairs. In the not-so-distant past, the feasts symbolized hope for the future, a time for the heir to be presented formally to the community, calculating the effects of passing the torch, so to speak, the relentless flow of time, the cycle of life starting over again.
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
~ Lt. Colonel John McCrae, “In Flanders Fields”
Funeral feasts reinforce the community’s sense of tribe, too. Like births, deaths remind people of their ties to each other. A lot of the success of archaeology centers around the presence of grave offerings. Early humans buried numerous things with their dead, including food. For example, The Vikings* and Egyptians left tremendous numbers of items in the graves of their loved ones and of their rulers, allowing archaeologists and historians valuable insights into cultural practices on many different levels. With the coming of Christianity, this practice came to an end, grave goods becoming more external in the form of grave stones and markers. And the food was for the living, not the dead.
The food, it seems, brings about a transition for the mourners.
Eating celebrates life. There’s a certain relief, is there not, that you can still eat, that you’ve gone to Samarra and Death did not find you there after all, although in your heart you know that one day people will gather because of you.
Breaking bread in celebration. Of lives well lived.
When for the last time
You close your mouth,
Your words and soul
Will belong to the world of
No place, no time.
~Rumi, ghazal number 911, translated by Nader Khalili
Note: I wrote this post in memory of my dear brother-in-law, Barry Bertelsen, who passed away on March 7, 2013, of virulent small-cell lung cancer. Barry dedicated his life to helping the people of his community and will be desperately missed by his close-knit family. He lived the last year of his life knowing that each day was a gift, even if it was not a particularly great day. By his example, he taught all of us what it is to live life as if each day were the last. And he showed us how to die with dignity and full awareness of our mortality. Go in peace, Barry, we will miss you terribly.
More to Think About
Although these books seem irreverent, it seems to be a human trait to thumb one’s nose at Death and mock it:
Junod, Tom. “Funeral Food,” Esquire magazine
Metcalfe, Gayden and Hays, Charlotte. Being Dead is No Excuse: The Official Southern Ladies Guide to Hosting the Perfect Funeral. New York: Miramax Books, 2005.
Rogak, Lisa. Death Warmed Over: Funeral Food, Rituals, and Customs from Around the World. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 2004.
Ward, Jessica Bemis. Food to Die For: A Book of Funeral Food, Tips and Tales. Southern Memorial Association: Lynchburg, VA, 2004.
There’s even a Pinterest page devoted to American funeral foods.
*Magoun, Francis Peabody; Bessinger, Jess B.; Creed, Robert P. Ibn Fadlan’s Account of the Rus with Some Commentary and Some Allusions to Beowulf (أحمد بن فضلان بن العباس بن راشد بن حماد). In: H. M. Smyser. Franciplegius: Medieval and Linguistic Studies in Honor of Francis Peabody Magoun. New York, New York: New York University Press, 1965, pp. 92-119. (Includes an eyewitness account of a tenth-century Viking funeral, probably in Sweden.)
© 2013 C. Bertelsen