Human beings have been dying forever, presumably for all of the 200,000 years we have been here. And we know that at least since Neanderthal times (60,000 B.C.!), there have been rituals and rites to honor the passage of a human from living to dead—in the Neanderthals’ case, they buried their loved ones decorated with flowers and antlers.
Too bad we don’t know whether the Neanderthals’ had ritual funeral food, as every culture does today. Would it have been roasted mammoth? In America, despite our polyglot history, we have a few omnipresent dishes we use to comfort the living after a funeral, chief among them cheesy potato casserole (aka “funeral potatoes”), baked ziti, and deviled eggs.
But there’s a whole world of funeral dishes to consider, many of them steeped in centuries of history—all of them meant to create community and comfort.
Lisa Rogak's Death Warmed Over: Funeral Food, Rituals, and Customs from Around the World, is an alphabetic journey of funeral traditions, starting with African-American and ending with Zoroastrianism.
Here are just a few festive funeral foods gathered into a single title, by author Lisa Rogak:
Belgian Funeral Cake
“When it comes to funeral food in Belgium, it seems that black is the key. In fact, color is frowned upon, so as better to reflect on the starkness of death. That’s why slices of crisp black bread—known as simnel cake and often referred to as “soul bread”—and chocolate anything tend to be the foods of choice before, during, and after a funeral.”
“On the day of the funeral, the family gathers to eat breakfast, a dish of jai, also known as Monk’s Food. You may have seen it on the menus of Chinese restaurants called Buddha’s Delight. Though jai is a dish that is traditionally served during the Chinese New Year, it is also eaten before a funeral, since death is also considered to be a new beginning for the deceased.”
“The mourning family typically presented holy men with a bowl of cooked corn mixed with sugar. The corn represented the resurrection of the soul while the sugar stood for a blissful future in heaven. Mourners are served a similar dish called kolliva but made with cracked wheat instead of corn. Some Greeks believed that the only way the gods would forgive the sins of the deceased is if the surviving family and friends ate plenty at the funeral.”
Irish Wake Cake
The defining element at any Irish wake is liquor, says Rogak. But all the more reason to serve this tasty, creamy cake: to soak up all the spirits in one’s belly.
Jamaican Johnny Cakes
In Jamaica, writes Rogak, “Nine Nights” is the name for a Jamaican wake. The length of the feast is to give the soul enough time to escape the body “and make its way to its next destination,” she writes. As part of the feast, a plate of cooked fish and cake is set next to the casket. And sometimes “also johnnycakes—journey cakes—are put into the casket to make sure the soul has enough food for its journey.”