Food

How Do People Decide Which Snacks Belong at a Funeral?

Snacks surrounding an urn at a funeral.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock.

This post is part of Nosh, a special pop-up blog about snacks. Read more here.

It may not be the first consideration, but food—in the form of snacks at funerals, wakes, and other death-related gatherings—is an important part of how the living come to terms with a loss. And just as how we choose to observe the passing of a loved one varies by religion, country of origin, and familial tradition, so too do the ways we try to feed dozens of grief-stricken people in what could be the worst time of their lives.

According to Susana Alba, the funeral arranger at Undertaking L.A. in California, choosing to offer food at a funeral service—usually at the wake or viewing, or following a burial service or celebration of life—is all a matter of where you hail from. “It all depends on cultural differences,” she said, “what food to bring, how much, whether they bring food at all.”

For instance, the big three religions (Christianity, Islam, Judaism) each encourage mourners in the community to support grieving families through nourishment in the immediate aftermath of a death, but they approach the custom in their own ways. The Jewish shiva traditionally requires mourners to abstain from cooking and preparing meals, among other basic everyday functions, leaving the job of providing nourishment to guests: According to Shiva.com, a shiva basket may most commonly contain “traditional Jewish delicatessen foods” like sandwich platters, pickled vegetables, and smoked fish.

A similar, though not quite as universal, custom exists among Filipino families, combining basic Roman Catholic practices with a classic Pinoy twist: During the multiday vigils held following a death, not only are families typically prohibited from preparing food, but guests are also barred from taking leftovers out of respect for the dead. If this rule is ignored, sprits may follow Tupperwares of the noodle dish pancit and bibingka, a coconut-rice cake, home in anger. Among Hispanic families, pan dulce (literally, sweet bread) and pastelitos or empanadas (savory turnovers, usually containing meat and veggies) are often served during visitations.

During the 40 days of mourning in a Muslim household, community members are most likely to provide food to the bereaved during the first three days, though additional nourishment is common throughout. Common foods vary by country and tradition, but mansaf—a dish of lamb cooked in dried yogurt and served with rice—is a frequent staple among Jordanian and Palestinian families, and the dense sweet paste known as halva (or halvah) can be found decorated with coconut shavings or almonds on a plate at Iranian funerals in addition to during Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting.

In the handful of viewings and funerals (usually Christian) I’ve attended, food has often honored the dead by presenting their favorite bites for all to enjoy—Southern comfort favorites like mac ’n’ cheese, casseroles, and baked ziti. But sometimes choosing to offer food in a time of grief and reflection is simply the practical choice. John Goddard, a fifth-generation funeral director and embalmer with Baker McCullough Funeral Home and Cremation in Savannah, Georgia, said that somewhere between seven and 10 of the roughly 35 families he sees monthly opt to have the home serve food during a time of grief.

“It’s usually when they’re overwhelmed with certain tasks,” he said. “The families who usually choose it are looking for us to help,” particularly when out-of-town travel is involved for those who will be attending the service. While Baker McCullough offers a range of options from finger snacks to sit-down meal services, Goddard said the culinary choices are usually geared toward the living over the dietary preferences of the dead.

As to why snacks are offered in the first place, Goddard thinks it offers “some form of comfort” to the living.

“It is a time to sit in fellowship with the rest of their family members, or anyone who attended, and a chance to unwind,” he said. “Usually, if it’s after the funeral, it’s a chance to sit and reminisce about the person who has died, so it’s a time of celebration of the person’s life that passed away.”

Writing about her own experiences with funeral food, Rebecca Orchant drew from the experience of someone else who had tackled unexpected loss, the author Julia Reed, in a 2014 piece for Huffington Post. While death is serious, and mourning can be somber, it is an oft-unstated fact that the prep involved in nourishment during a period of loss can be just as much humorous as it is melancholic.

“When her family received the call, the motions of preparing for what would come next began immediately,” Orchant wrote. “As her mother rushed out the door to make arrangements, she shouted back to Reed with all the importance in the universe, ‘Go clean out the refrigerator.’ ”

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