The Dumb Supper: Dining with the Dead

In 1692, in Salem, Massachusetts, nineteen people were executed for practicing the “devil’s work,” or, in other words, being witches. Fourteen were women, five were men. In 2019, at the end of October, also in Salem, Massachusetts, modern day witches celebrate the Festival of the Dead.

Many cultures and religions celebrate this time of year as the time to honor their dead. Día de Los Muertos, All Souls’ Day, Halloween and Samhain (pronounced, “Sow-win”) celebrate, with offerings of food and flowers, those who have left us. When You Die Team member, Kelley Edwards, went to Salem for the Festival of the Dead. She writes about a fascinating event and tradition, The Dumb Supper.

When most people hear of the town of Salem, Massachusetts, they automatically think of witches. Although those executed were innocents, the town has since become a centre for modern-day witches. In fact, today’s witches of Salem are nothing like the stereotypes we think of and they are much more than folklore. The community of witches works the “old ways” which involves honouring their ancestors. Halloween or Samhain is a sacred time and considered the Witch’s New Year, as it signifies the end of the Harvest and the beginning of Winter. It is on this night, leading into All Souls Day, that they believe the veil between the dead and the living is at its thinnest and the dead are open to communication.

This was familiar to me as a child when my grandmother encouraged us to open the doors and windows at midnight on Halloween to, “let the dead blow through,” and keep spirits from getting trapped and haunting our house. It was unclear if this was a tradition from our Welsh heritage, or something my grandmother had come to on her own, but to this day, on Halloween night, I still follow my Grandmother’s tradition and open the windows and doors. It’s not about fearing ghosts but remembering someone I love. I know of others who observe this time to commemorate their dead with food, as in the short animated film, “A Dinner with Dad” which is featured on the When You Die Member’s page.

Today, the witches of Salem, and those who gather there from afar, honour this time of year with the Festival of The Dead, an annual event that, according to its website, “explores death’s macabre customs, heretical histories and strange rituals.” One event of particular interest is the Dumb Supper. The name comes from the fact that the entire 4-course meal is consumed in complete and solemn silence. This silence, again from the Festival of the Dead website, “not only allows people to grieve their dead but creates a portal for the spirits to come through.” Guests are encouraged to bring photos and mementos to summon the souls of their loved ones on the other side. The Dumb Supper is an ancient tradition where the dead attend the living. The meal is served in reverse order, starting with dessert and ending with appetizer and bread as the meal itself is a reflected image of the meal the dead would remember.

The Festival of the Dead runs in Salem for the entire month of October, and it is one of the busiest times of the year. While there is certainly a party atmosphere, there is also a solemn aspect that might be missed by tourists. The Festival of the Dead celebrates life and our impending death as well as honoring those who came before. It is believed that in doing this, we also set ourselves up to become good ancestors to future generations.

Sarah Lyn, in her blog, Walking With Ancestors, ends her Dumb Supper with this:

To those who have gone before,

To those whose names live in our hearts and dance upon our lips,

To those whose names have been lost in the sea of time,

To those whose bones lie above and below the earth,

To those whose ashes have traveled on the winds,

We, the living, thank you for dining with us.

We, the living, wish you safe travels.


So, set a place for your loved one. Remember them. Then eat, drink and be merry. For tomorrow we may die.


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