The history of food and mourning begins with the actual consumption of the deceased – cannibalism. Over time, it changes to the concept of providing food for the departed. Then, by the Middle Ages, funeral food focuses on feeding the living mourners.
Scientists have found evidence of cannibalism on Paleolithic remains in Europe, as well as intentionally created, ritual markings on human bones. It’s difficult to know exactly the motivations of our ancestors more than 12,000 years ago, but some paleontologists believe various ancient cultures participated in endo-cannibalism: “cannibalism of members of one’s own family or tribe.”
Exo-cannibalism, or revenge cannibalism, is the type we may be most familiar with. That’s the consumption of an enemy, often at the end of a war. But endo-cannibalism is a ritual performed at funerals for loved ones. These Paleolithic rituals survived in different cultures in vastly different parts of the world through the 20th century: most notably, in Papua, New Guinea, where a loved one was consumed to pass on their spirit to descendants and in the Amazon River Basin, where a corpse is eaten by a family to emphasize that a body is just meat – a physical vessel for a human life. When we see similar traditions span this far across the world, anthropologists take it as a sign that it is a ritual that evolved early in human existence before humans spread out across the planet.
At this point, you, dear reader, are probably thinking “ew, gross.” But it is easy to find a similar example of endo-cannibalism in modern Western culture. In Catholicism, parishioners “take communion:” a cracker and sip of wine that are symbolic of the body and blood of Christ.
Food began to take on a more symbolic meaning at least 4,000 years ago in ancient Egypt, where food like bread and beer were left in tombs for the deceased for their spiritual nourishment. Paintings of cattle and birds on the walls would provide further sustenance once the worldly food ran out. We can see a transition at King Midas’ funeral, in 8th-century Anatolia (located in modern-day Turkey). A feast of goat stew and fermented beverages was presented in his tomb for his spiritual nourishment, but was then consumed by the funeral attendees. Then, the table, dinnerware, and leftovers were sealed in the tomb with Midas’ body (and found in 1957 by the University of Pennsylvania archaeologists).
Food in mourning becomes focused on the living during the feudal system of the Middle Ages. When a lord died, an Averil was held, and old English word for Heir’s Ale. Essentially, all the surrounding lords would come to toast the new heir. A massive feast was provided, both because the attendees might come from far away and because the bigger the feast the more powerful it made the deceased seem. A sweet bread, called arval or averil, was passed out to the attendees and any serfs on the property.
The consumption of averil was symbolic flesh consumption, descended from Paleolithic traditions and reflective of Catholicism. Such endo-cannibalism was present in secular European culture with the medieval averil and in America in the 18th and 19th centuries. Sometimes it presented itself more literally, like in the form of corpse cakes in Germany, bread that was left to rise on the chest of the deceased. The sentiment was that the bread absorbed the positive aspects of the deceased. The bread was baked and eaten, and those aspects of the deceased’s personality passed on to the descendants. There was also sin-eating, which evolved in Ireland in the late Middle Ages, when bread was consumed by a paid funeral attendee who would spiritually consume any of the deceased’s unconfessed sins. Some historians believe the tradition of sin-eating survived in America in Appalachia until the early 20th century.
By the 18th and 19th centuries, this symbolic bread became more standardized and commercial. At the time of a death, it became common to prepare funeral cakes or biscuits or cookies, different names for essentially the same thing. In England, they were often ladyfingers; in America, they were spiced shortbread based on New Amsterdam Dutch doed koekjes. The cakes could be ordered from a baker, rapidly produced, and wrapped in a printed image, Bible verse, or quote. They could be eaten at a funeral, often served with wine, but were also taken away as memento mori, an object serving as a reminder of death.
Historically, funeral food was a way to help the living find meaning in death. It represented a passing on of a spirit, either to the descendants of the deceased or perhaps on to a higher realm. Today, although symbolic rituals around food and mourning still exist, food’s most important purpose is to comfort the mourners. Across cultures in America, whether it’s Jewish or Mormon, Italian or Southern Black, food is often provided by the community for the family of the deceased. Hams and casseroles, bagels and cakes are delivered to the house of the mourners to provide substance, comfort, and to let those that have lost a family member know they are loved.
Does your culture have a specific mourning tradition and a food that goes along with it?