Food During Times of Grief

In a funereal setting, food often servers a number of symbolic functions

Pan de muerto
Pan de muerto Image courtesy of Flickr user sierravalleygirl

There comes a point in every person’s life where they must decide how to take care of their mortal remains. There are tons of possibilities. There’s traditional: the crematorium or a simple pine box set six feet under. There’s the avant garde: artist Jae Rhim Lee’s prototypical mushroom suit where fungus spores grow on and break down the corpse. Some get especially inventive, such as comic book editor Mark Gruenwald, who had his ashes mixed in with ink and used to print a comic book, or Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry who had his ashes launched into space. There’s also the debate as to whether to care for the dead at home or let a mortician handle the job, an issue explored by journalist Max Alexander. There also comes a point where you need to figure out how to feed the living as many cultures respond to death through food—and those responses are similarly rich in variation. And with people celebrating the Day of the Dead today—the Mexican festival that commemorates the deceased—it’s a perfect opportunity to look at some of these funerary foodways.

In a funereal setting, food can serve a number of functions, some of which are contingent on one’s spiritual convictions. In some rituals, food is meant to sustain the deceased in the afterlife. The ancient Egyptians were notable for placing edible offerings in a tomb in the belief that a person’s spirit could thus be sustained for eternity—and in some cases the food itself was mummified and wrapped, as was the case with the joints of meat found in the tomb of priestess Henutmehyt. Similarly, Day of the Dead festivities include creating an altar in one’s home where food—usually the deceased’s favorite dishes—is laid to nourish traveling souls. (And in many communities, families will pack a picnic lunch to bring to the family cemetery plot where they eat pan de muertos, a sweetbread with bone-like decorations.) Other traditions incorporate food to ward off evil. At one time in Jewish tradition, bagels were meant to protect against the evil eye—although this bread is eaten, usually with a hard boiled egg, because the round shape is meant to symbolize the cyclical nature of life. In Japan, mourners may sprinkle themselves with salt as a ritualistic purification of the body or use it in the corners of their homes to ward off evil spirits—and it’s a tradition that inspired sculptor Motoi Yamamoto to create intricate, large-scale images with salt in response to the death of his sister.

But perhaps most importantly, food is meant to sustain the living, not just nutritionally but spiritually. In Molokan communities in the United States, the funeral dinner is a major social and spiritual event with hymns and prayers sung between courses, which can include dishes like borscht, boiled beef and a dessert course of fruits and pastries. The immediate family of the deceased, however, abstains from eating, showing that “spiritual food” is enough to tide them over during their time of grief.

When my paternal grandfather entered end of life care, neighbors and extended family came with boxes of food to load up Grandma’s pantry and freezer. When he passed and it came time to arrange the post-funeral meal, the family didn’t have to worry about preparing anything, only what items to pull from the fridge to set out for guests. The table was laid out, buffet-style, with platters of ham biscuits, deli meats, cheeses and slaw with desserts—two pumpkin pies and an Angel food cake—nearby on the kitchen counter. After an emotional afternoon at the cemetery, the mood lifted somewhat as people packed their plates and shared a meal and their memories of Grandaddy Jim. And the combination of good company and good eats is certainly helpful when processing the loss of a loved one.

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