When a friend’s father died, I went to his funeral at a small Greek Orthodox church in Toronto. Much of the service eluded me, as I do not understand Greek, but one of the most powerful moments needed no words. Onto the altar came a man in a black cassock, carrying a plastic shopping bag from Zellers. Apparently a lesser cleric, he skirted around the gorgeously dressed priest, who was praying at the center, and went to a side altar. Out of the bag he took a big bowl, clear plastic cups, and containers of food. He began combining ingredients in the bowl, and, when he was satisfied with the mixture, he ladled it into the glasses. I had no idea what was happening, but I joined the congregation as we filed up to the altar to take a cup and a plastic spoon. We returned to our seats and ate in silence. I had a threadbare memory that the Orthodox churches have a funerary food made of boiled wheat, dried fruits, and honey. As I learned later, it is called koliva and symbolizes the resurrection (“Except a grain of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.” John 12:24). At the time, I knew none of that, but sitting in a quiet church, facing a coffin on the altar and spooning this honeyed, grainy mixture into my mouth felt mysteriously solacing.
It also felt strange. Eating in church, other than Communion, seems weird at any time, but eating what tasted like a sweet cereal in the middle of a funeral was unique in my experience. In Canada, no Anglican or United Church funeral is complete without the white quarter-sandwiches, soggy with mayonnaise and soft proteins, that are served afterward in the church basement. But that is usually as far as it goes: specific mourning foods are few and far between in secular Western society.
Things were different for our ancestors, and still are for people who live in traditional cultures. Many societies had a particular menu for the post-funeral meal: the Polish combined peas, noodles, and poppy seeds in a dish for the stypa, as they called the supper after the burial; Portuguese funeral-goers in the Minho region expected to receive a slice of cornbread with a piece of cod or sardine. The Dutch decorated their doed-koecken, or “dead-cakes,” with the initials of the departed. In the West, where black is the color of grief, the Belgians frosted cakes with darkest chocolate, the British stewed prunes and the Amish still fill a pastry shell with raisins and call it “funeral pie.” Belgians found red wine too cheerful for a funeral feast, and served only white. In the East, where white is the color of mourning, Buddhists eat an all-white meal after the funeral.
Why are food and drink more important at wakes, funerals, and shivas than they are at happy rites of passage? The answers usually begin with the psychological: people eat and drink, we are told, to dull their sorrow. (Especially drink. The Latvian expression “to drink a funeral” points to the prominence of alcohol at these gatherings.) Anthropologists will tell you that our long-ago ancestors feared above all the supposed anger of the dead person, and a feast that honored him or her was a prudent tactic. There was another, theological incentive in medieval Europe: people believed that the prayers of funeral-goers were particularly effective at speeding the soul’s journey to heaven, so crowds were enticed to funerals with the promise of abundant food and drink afterward.
All no doubt true, but the importance of the food we eat following a death has other motives as deep or deeper than these. Food radically separates us from the dead. We eat, they do not. So the act of eating can be a dash of cold water in the mourner’s face, either salutary or insensitive, depending on your point of view. Many close mourners lose their appetite, and those who don’t often feel that they should. Eating can feel cavalier and cruel, although the conventional wisdom is that it is a necessary reminder that life goes on. (That kind of bromide is unlikely to persuade a heartbroken mourner.)
Perhaps the emphasis on food speaks more clearly to the larger group of family and friends than to the innermost circle of the bereaved. Funeral feasts reorient and affirm. The dropped stitch in the fabric cannot be recovered, but the damage can be mended, however clumsily. At this first gathering since the death, family and friends eat together, indicating that the community endures even while the most sorrowful among them may be indifferent to food, if not to the group itself. The ritual foods at these feasts are another kind of continuity, allowing people—again, probably not the most grief-stricken—the comfort of thinking, “Our group has always eaten these peas and noodles (or these lentils, or this braided bread) in times of trouble.”
In many cultures, the care given to the chief mourners helps to soften the sharpness of the “life-must-go-on” determination. Jewish mourners are not allowed to eat their own food in the first days after a death; it must be brought and prepared by the community. Even hard-boiled eggs, a central part of the meal eaten after the burial, must be peeled for the mourner, as they would be for children or the sick.
Many of these traditional funeral foods come with poetry, by which I mean the symbolic meanings attached to them. Jewish mourning foods are especially rich in poetry. Round foods are prominent at the “meal of condolence” that follows the burial: depending on where you live and your branch of Judaism, they include hard-boiled eggs, lentils, olives, and bagels. Roundness symbolizes the cycle of life and death, and these are also called foods “without mouths,” because grief at this stage is said to be inarticulate.
I’ve never found these explanations very satisfying. The cycle of life suggests a smooth, unbroken line, but surely we are at the meal of consolation because something serious has been broken. And if grief is often inarticulate in the early days of mourning, it is not necessarily silent. After all, Jews call the period between death and burial aninut, the wailing time. Maybe wishful thinking is involved in these interpretations, or perhaps they are after-the-fact rationalizations for a much more basic desire to eat simple, undemanding foods at a harrowing time. Two things Jewish mourning foods have in common with those of other cultures is that they are humble—luxury was considered dangerous during mourning, another invitation for the angry spirit of the dead person to exact revenge—and soft. Like food for the ill, lentils, eggs, and peas do not require much effort to eat or make much noise in the chewing.
At our increasingly individualistic funerals, we substitute eulogies, picture boards, PowerPoint presentations and the dead person’s favorite music for the common ritual we lack. In the same way, foods that remind us of the dead stand in for traditional dishes. It is a Thai practice to present mourners with a little cookbook, a compilation of the favorite recipes of the dead person. But you don’t have to be Thai to do that: when my mother died, we enlarged some of the 3x5 index cards in her recipe file and made a pamphlet that we handed out as people left the funeral. To read her recipes, carefully written in her perfect Palmer penmanship—coconut pound cake, various chicken dishes, mincemeat squares, the Nuremberg lebkuchen that came from her Bavarian mother—is to summon her back, temporarily. To cook and eat her specialties, even more so.
After my mother’s funeral, family and friends were invited to her condo to eat Party Chicken, a mid-century recipe that shrouds boneless chicken in chipped beef, then drowns it in sour cream and cream of mushroom soup. (It is surprisingly good.) A daughter-in-law suggested we use paper plates, but her three daughters would have none of that. Out came the silver and the good china, which my mother always referred to as “the Haviland.” Both had dowdy 1940s patterns that she had long outgrown—like Party Chicken, they were from another era-but we had eaten too many of her holiday meals off the dishes not to use them one last time.
It’s rare to make your own mourning food, but someone told me about a woman who did, albeit inadvertently. She was a good cook who died unexpectedly, with a well-stocked freezer. Her friends defrosted and prepared the contents of the freezer and ate them together in her honor. The person who told me the story mentioned a cake, but other than that, I don’t know the menu. Perhaps it included lasagna, spaghetti sauce, soup or stew, the kinds of things we make and freeze for a busy day or an impromptu feast. In my mind’s eye, I see the friends eating her food grouped around her freezer—the coffin-shaped kind—as if it were a hearth. Of course, they did nothing of the kind. No doubt they sat at her table and reminisced about her and other meals they had eaten there. Probably they remarked, more than once, that they would never eat her food again. It sounds as good a funeral feast as any.
Katherine Ashenburg is a (Canadian) National Magazine Award-winning writer and the author of three books, most recently The Dirt on Clean: An Unsantized History (Knopf Canada). Reprinted from Maisonneuve (Spring 2013), a Montreal-based quarterly magazine that covers arts, politics, ideas, and anything else eclectic and curious.