By Pam Vukelic
Part of the recovery process after the death of a loved one involves the gathering of friends and family for a meal. This is a time for people to reminisce and share stories, and it is a healthy step in moving forward.
Religion and ethnicity impact the process. For some, a wake is held before the funeral — wakes are generally joyful occasions. Jewish people sit shiva for seven days after the burial, usually in the home of the deceased. Visitors bring food and will probably find family members sitting on less-than-comfortable seats in a home where mirrors are covered. This is no time for comfort or vanity.
Food has been associated with funerals for thousands of years. In ancient Greece and Egypt, eating utensils were found on many grave sites. They believed that the journey to a final resting place might take some time so food was left for travel. Some coffins were fixed with a feeding tube so food could be delivered to the deceased from above-ground.
The practice I am most familiar with involves a reception at the church following the service. After the deaths of my parents, the women of the church did a phenomenal job of feeding all guests and accommodating our requests. The ladies’ circles at North Viking Lutheran Church took turns shouldering the responsibility.
Researchers have found that much more food is consumed at funeral receptions than at wedding receptions. Perhaps the desire to eat after a funeral is a subconscious display of gratitude for our own survival.
And then there is the practice of bringing prepared food to the home of the family. At a time when family members find their energy sapped and are sometimes overwhelmed by the many visitors, gifts of food (and also some non-food items) from friends and neighbors are most welcome.
After research and discussion with friends, Pam recommends sharing these items to support those who are grieving:
- Comfort foods such as casseroles, soups, and potato dishes
- Mac and cheese, chicken nuggets, and small applesauce cups for children
- Substantial salads, such as potato salad, that will keep for several days
- Dried fruit, chocolate, nuts, and raw vegetables
- Cold cuts such as meat and cheese with crackers and bread, or maybe a nice ham
- Deviled eggs would go well with the cold cuts
- Beverages, such as sodas, iced tea, and milk to stock the refrigerator, and maybe a bag of ice
- Coffee with creamer and sugar
- A basket of bagels, cream cheese, and orange juice brought to the front step for breakfast
- An item that was a favorite of the loved one
- Freezer containers to help ensure food doesn’t go to waste and perhaps offer freezer space
- Disposable utensils and paper plates as well as other consumables the extra guests are using
- Food delivered in disposable containers or clearly labeled if you want an item returned
- A note with your food to help people remember who brought what
- Although not food, a roll of stamps, to defray the expense of sending thank you notes
To prevent overburdening a family with too much food at one time, work with someone close to the family to develop a schedule for delivery and to learn the likes and dislikes of the people involved.
If you are a member of the family who lost a loved one, please don’t hesitate to accept offers of help. It is a gift to the giver when you welcome their contribution.
Some cultures have a specific dish that is typically part of the funeral food ritual. I found recipes for Funeral Pie (Amish), Funeral Cake (Norwegian), Funeral Jambalaya (New Orleans), Funeral Goulash (Hungary), and Funeral Potatoes (Colonial America). These comfort foods travel easily and take little or no preparation to serve. “Death Warmed Over” by Lisa Rogak (2004) includes many recipes and descriptions of rituals around the world.
On another note not related to food, when we were planning my dad’s funeral, I arranged to have men’s handkerchiefs embroidered with a monogram of his initials and the years of his birth and death. I distributed them to all family members gathered for prayers prior to the service. Each time that hanky comes through the laundry it offers me another occasion to reminisce about my wonderful father.