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The Role of Food in Death and Grief

Part 1: The intertwined history of food and death.

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Foods for Korean traditional rites on the table for remembering ancestors
Source: Photo Yoon/Shutterstock

Food nourishes and nurtures us. We could not exist without it. It sustains us on a daily basis and is an important part of our celebrations. We know food keeps us alive.

But what about the role food plays in death? After the burial, there is usually food of some type for the mourners whether it is a casserole, sandwiches, or a more elaborate affair. This custom of eating after the burial is ancient and dates back to Roman and Greek societies where elaborate feasts were held.

In addition to feeding the living, food was also deemed important for the soul’s journey to the afterlife. Food was buried with the pharaohs along with other important belongings. In ancient Rome, a system was developed where tubes attached to the top of the graves were lowered directly into the deceased's mouth so the mourners could continue to supply the deceased with bread and wine [1]. In the Mayan civilization, the dead were buried with maize in their mouth [2].

The ancient Greeks believed that the only way that the gods would forgive their sins was by the amount of food that friends and family consumed after the funeral. The more you ate, the better the chances were that the soul would have a good journey to the afterlife. It was also important for the deceased's journey that there was enough food and drink to sustain them on their voyage. Some societies continued to feed the deceased for up to a year while others offered food on special holidays and anniversaries.

Food was not only to assist the dead crossing over but also helped to ensure that the other deceased relatives were appeased and would not come back to haunt the living. Sometimes food was placed in the grave and other times, it was next to the grave. At times, alcohol was poured on top of the grave.[3]

Not only did food play a role in getting to the afterlife but it was also important in freeing the deceased from their sins to ensure their passage. Those who provided this service were called sin-eaters. This custom was said to have begun in Wales and was used from approximately the early 1600s to the early twentieth century. Sin-eaters were also to be found in the Appalachian mountains in the United States [4].

The sin-eater was usually a poor man who lived alone and on the periphery of the community. Wales in the 1600s was experiencing a time of starvation. Many did not have the money to buy what food was available. It seems that each community had their own sin-eater. Once there was a death, a family member would seek out the sin-eater and bring him to the home. People believed that a body could be cleansed of sin if their sins were taken on by another. Sometimes the sin-eater was allowed in the home to eat the food placed around the deceased while at other times, he was given a piece of bread to eat that had been placed on the dead body. Often eating was done outside as people believed the sin-eater was evil because of all the sins he had consumed.

The sin-eater would be given food, beer, and a minimal amount of money. When finished eating, he would let the family know the deceased was free to enter heaven and was usually then chased and beaten as he left. For the poor who could not afford the sin-eater, they were said to have taken bread, laid it on the deceased and then given it to an unsuspecting stranger to eat. However, in countries like Germany and Hungary, the bread was used to absorb the goodness of the person to then be shared with others.[5]

During the Victorian era in Great Britain, sin-eaters were no longer used. Instead, bakeries began to make funeral biscuits or funeral cookies that were then given to those attending the funeral. These breads were etched with pictures of the deceased or had poems and remembrances written on them. They were specially wrapped with a black sash tied around them and could be taken home. These were often kept as souvenirs of the deceased and not eaten [5].

Sharing food with the dead is not just limited to one individual’s death. Throughout the world there are many places that have a special day of the year to honor all their ancestors. You can find these festivals in places as varied as Mexico, Poland, and Japan to name a few. While the way the day is celebrated may be different for each culture, food is always a large part of the remembrance. Special foods enjoyed by the deceased are served in their honor to show the mourners ongoing love and respect regardless of how long the ancestors have been dead [6].

Part two will explore the role of food and the bereaved. While food can be a source of comfort, the bereaved often do not have the energy or desire to cook for themselves. Eating alone can be sad and isolating. Indeed, appetite and sleep are some of the first things to be impacted when grieving. We will examine this interplay of food and grief in part two of this post.

References

1) Cann, Caudi (ed) (2018) Dying to Eat: Cross-cultural Perspective on Food,Death, and the Afterlife. Lexington Kentucky. University Press of Kentucky.

2) Ricketson, O.(1925) Burials in the Maya Area. https://anthrosource.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1525/aa.1925.27.3.02a00030

3) Burial Rites, Ancient Greece. http://www.hellenicaworld.com/Greece/Ancient/en/BurialRites.html

4) Rojak, Lisa (2013). Death Warmed Over: Funeral Food, Rituals, and customs from around the World. [Kindle Version]

5) Levins, Hoag (2011). The Story of the Victorian Funeral Cookies. http://historiccamdencounty.com/ccnews153.shtml.

6) Geiling, Natasha. (2014) Festivals That Honor the Dead All Around the World. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/travel/festivals-dead-around-world-180953160/

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