Sad Food

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Photo By Fotolia/lynea
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.”

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

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

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 3×5 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

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