On feasting, food and funerals

This past Tuesday I had the pleasure of attending Anthony Bourdain’s Guts and Glory tour, his first live tour that consists of 75 minutes of fantastic food and travel rants. Throughout his expletive filled diatribe, he emphasized that food is the way to reach other cultures. Food is a primary way that people express their past and present, it is an amalgamation of their historical roots and current living conditions. Through food we create and maintain ties to one another. It is important, in fact it is fundamental to survival. Most importantly to Bourdain, it is a way to learn and connect with other cultures, and through eating he has been able to reach the intimate and cultural side of society throughout the world.

Feating at a funeral, kind of, via Esquire and Fiodor Sumkin

Feating at a funeral, kind of, via Esquire and Fiodor Sumkin

So how do the lessons Bourdain has taught pertain to a series on human remains and cemeteries? The processes that surround death are not about dying and disposal, they are about life and survival. Death is a major disruption of family, community, and society. Funerals and the rituals that surround them are a way of mending and renewing this disruption. Given the importance of food to creating ties between people and expressing historical roots, food and drink are often a major part of the funerary and healing process. Food is the ultimate and final expression of an individual and community’s culture. Think about the stereotypical Irish wake, where prayers are traded for alcohol, and the life of the deceased is celebrated and cherished over drinks and food. Following my Irish grandmother’s funeral we took time to gather at a nearby pub and share our favorite memories, in both sadness and laughter, over Guinness and Buffalo chicken wings (I’m originally from Upstate NY, just east of where the Buffalo chicken wing was invented- to us this is our local heritage).

Tombs of Isola Sacra, Roman Empire Necropolis

Tombs of Isola Sacra, Roman Empire Necropolis, via Ostia Antica

In the Roman Empire, food varied by the stage of the funeral, acted as a way to join the community together, and was also a way to display status. A study by Polfer (2000) found that in a Roman cemetery the food vessels varied in what they contained by location within the cemetery. He examined the funerary structures as well as the graves was done at Septfontaines, a rural burial site dating to the early 3rd century CE in France. Comparing the use of the pots revealed that the ones by the pyre site were primarily for eating, and the majority found in the grave were for drinking. This means there were two different steps in the funerary process. While the individual was burned there was feasting and when they were buried there was drinking in their honor.

Gee (2008) argues that ancient Romans would visit their deceased relatives yearly, and would feast by the tomb. Through ritual visitation and taking part in a feast together, the deceased are brought to life as ancestors. Further, by participating in them, the living maintained their family identity while participating in a larger community event. Feasting with the dead, both recent and long gone provided a way to reconnect a broken community and maintain these ties with an ancestral past. White (2006) however found that the food that was eaten by the graves and placed with the deceased varied by the status of the family and individual. She examined over 200 burials from the Roman period in Britain and conducted analysis of the floral and faunal remains. Males were found to have more faunal remains around their burials, and wealthier individuals were more likely to have the floral remains of exotic plants.

Funeral cookie, via Historic Camden Co

Funeral cookie, via Historic Camden Co

Funeral food is also an important way to connect with ones roots and allows those who are far away from their ancestors to participate in a common ritual. In colonial America, especially in German and British colonists, as people walked from the church to the grave they were given a mollasses or caraway cookie and a drink of some type of alcohol. It was considered a type of secular communion and also a way of connecting to their ancestors back in Europe (Thursby 2006:89). Funeral food and custom in the South remains so important that you can buy a book aptly titled “Being Dead Is No Excuse: The Official Southern Ladies Guide To Hosting the Perfect Funeral“, while written in a tongue in cheek style, it is also true and discusses the lengths people go through to prepare the perfect funeral feast.

For the most part, funeral food is hometown classic food. It is today, and it likely was in the past. When Gee (2008) examined faunal and floral remins found in burials during the Iron Age to Roman period transition, she found that food buried with the dead and eaten around the burial didn’t change with the invasion. It was over a century before the funeral food changed from the Iron Age Briton focus on chicken to the British-Romano focus on beef. Death causes people to remember their roots and cling to what is comfortable. Therefore, if what Bourdain tells us is true- that food is the way to see culture, then funerary food is the ultimate expression of this.

Works Cited

Gee, R 2008 From corpse to ancestor. The role of tombside dining in the transformation of the body in ancient Rome. in: The materiality of death. Bodies, burials, beliefs p. 59-68.

Polfer, Michel 2000 Reconstructing funerary rituals: the evidence of ustrina and related archaeological structures. In Burial, society, and context in the Roman World. Pearce, Millet and Struck, eds. Pp. 30-44. Oxford: Oxbow Books.

Thursby, 2006 Funeral Festivals in America: Rituals for the Living

White, Natalie 2006 Catering for the cultural identities of the deceased in Roman Britain: interpretative potential and problems. TRAC 2006 : 115-13

4 responses to “On feasting, food and funerals

  1. Jealously is raising its ugly head – a day with Bourdain – how great. Your post is just as good. I never thought about the food and death connection, but it makes perfect sense. With my Italian heritage it was food with everything. I may have choose the menu and leave it with my final wishes.

  2. With our family, not only is food important during and after the funeral, but for generations after. At Christmas, a place is reserved for those who cannot be with us, whether due to distance, circumstance (unable to get time from work, etc.) or death. At Easter, a blessed egg is left at the grave of every family member.

  3. Pingback: On food and funerals, part 2 | Bones Don't Lie·

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