Death and Food

From sin eaters to sharing food that is symbolic of the circle of life, eating together after a loss is a communal grief practice throughout time and culture.

In the small community where I grew up, as soon as the word went around that someone was dying, or had died, neighbours and extended family began to cook and bake. It is the communal nature of grief. In times of loss we often feel helpless while wanting to be helpful, so we turn to our kitchens to provide comfort and support.

When my mother died, a flood of food began to arrive at our family home. Casseroles, salads, sandwiches and sweets filled our fridge and freezer while the overflow was kept in the cool back porch. The name of the contributor was written on masking tape on the side or bottom so that the dish could be returned later.  The teapot was never empty and with friends, family and neighbours, we cried over our cups, laughed at stories we had heard before and remarked on those we hadn’t. Even if grief kept us from eating, every casserole and cookie was a kindness that helped us know we were not alone.

Although not a large community, we did have a sampling of religious and cultural diversity and whether Catholic or Protestant, African Orthodox or Jewish, every funeral I attended in my area was followed by a lunch in the community or church hall. Mourners collect sweets and “little sandwiches” onto their plates. These are simply sandwiches with the crusts removed, cut into rectangular or triangle shapes, much like those served at a High Tea. For me, they will always be synonymous with funerals. There are always a lot of egg salad, as the egg represents life and resurrection and also because it is an easy and economical way to feed a group of people. Since our area was partly dependent on a fishing industry, lobster and crab salad were also a staple. Often, on the walk from the church to the hall you would hear someone say “I hope they have those little sandwiches.”  
They always did.

Food at a funeral didn’t have such an appetizing beginning. Some cultures practiced endocannibalism, such as the Amazon Wari Tribe, who consumed the body of the deceased in order to have the essence of that person live on in them.

Early Celtic cultures gave birth to “sin eaters” that later evolved into rituals practiced by Christian of those areas in the 18th & 19th century. When someone died, bread and salt would be left on a corpse to be eaten by “a person of the lowest possible social standing,” to absorb the sins of the dead and ensure that he or she would get into heaven. Variations on sin-eating are found around the world. In Chinese culture, the grain of choice was rice, which also symbolizes life. Monks were asked to transfer any bad deeds committed by the deceased loved one into food, which they then ate. In addition, the Chinese would serve chicken, as it was believed that it will help the soul fly to heaven.

The link between food and death is very common in most cultures. In many cases, ingredients such as grain are used that represent resurrection and the cycle of life. Colivă is popular funeral dish made of wheat originating in pre-Christian times in Ancient Greece. Adopted by the Eastern Orthodox Church it spread across parts of Europe and the Middle East. It is boiled wheat kernels, usually mixed with honey or sugar and made into cookies and cakes. In Romania, they call it “Death Cake” and is placed on the altar during the funeral service.

Jewish funeral foods are rich with symbolism. The mourning process of Shiva lasts for seven days and begins immediately after the burial. Only the family closest to the deceased share the first meal called the Seudat Havara’ah (“Sue-did Shev-rah-hah”). Translated, this means meal of comfort or condolence. Round foods like eggs, lentils and bagels are all served during the mourning period, because their shape reminds us of the cycle of life.

While customs and rituals have changed or disappeared over the years, one common ingredient remains: the need to connect with the living while honouring the dead. Food is the universal bond that connects us in our grief and in our joy.

In my times of grief, I don’t remember what I ate or how it tasted, but the memory of the consolation it provided still remains. Whether it is a comforting casserole or triangle-shaped little sandwich, at a time of profound loss, food brings a community together to share grief, sympathy, support and compassion.

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