Sad Food

Cultures throughout history have ritualized “sad food” to be eaten at funerals. Aside from soggy church sandwiches, what do we eat when we’re grieving?


| July/August 2013



Sad Food

In the West, where black is the color of grief, the Belgians frosted cakes with dark chocolate and the Amish still fill a pastry shell with raisins and call it “funeral pie.”

Photo By Fotolia/lynea

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.)