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Funeral Food: A Rich History

For almost as long as we’ve held funerals, there has been a connection between funerals and food. What began as provided food for the departed in their next life has transformed into what we know today, mourners sharing food and gathering together. Today, we will explore the history of food and funerals and how sharing a meal at the time of someone’s passing became a symbolic tradition we still practice today.

 

          Paleolithic Times

The history of food at funerals dates back more than 12,000 years and begins with the actual consumption of the deceased. The practice of endo-cannibalism, defined as the “cannibalism of members of one’s own family or tribe”, was a popular tradition among many groups. The belief was that by consuming the dead, either in full or part, would transfer the soul and knowledge of that person from their body. Some believed that the consuming of the body showed that it was simply a physical vessel for human life, and not the soul of the dead. 


Ancient Egypt

At some point, consuming the deceased turned into a more symbolic feature of funerals and the custom shifted to offering food for the deceased to take into the afterlife. In Egypt, things like bread and beer were left in tombs for spiritual nourishment for the dead. It was also common practice to “mummify” and bury meat alongside the dead to keep them full in the afterlife.


          China

The Chinese also carried the tradition of leaving food with the deceased- in this case buried in the graves with them. This food and drink was stored in containers and was thought to provide provisions on the journey to the spirit world. In other practices, the food was not buried with the deceased, but offered as a feast during special holiday to their spirits. This food could range from a whole animal to regional dishes and homemade sweets.


          Food for the Mourners

A major change in funeral food came when the practice shifted from an offering for the dead to an offering of sharing for the mourners. Much like the customs before this, the offerings vary across time and culture. For example, the Amish bring what is known today as a “Funeral Pie”, a traditional raisin pie shared amongst mourners. In China, rice is shared at all funerals as it is considered a symbol of life. Even as far back as the Middle Ages in Germany, food was shared among the living with great symbolism after a death. Here, they partook in the eating of “corpse cakes” made from boiled wheat and sprinkled with sugar, nuts and dried fruit. The cakes were left to rise on the linen covered chest of the deceased and thought to absorb some of their personal qualities.


          Present Day

Today, it is still a tradition to share food at the time of a loved one’s passing. This can happen as the family is gathering at a home where one is near death, after a funeral or wake, where family and friends will continue to share stories, or even during the gathering at the funeral home. Food and drink have long brought people together and connected us to each other with rich tradition, something that will not likely change anytime soon.


 
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