Food and Death, anthropologically speaking

By klayperson • ART HISTORY • 4:08 pm

Sugar skullsSo there was this guy who died and went to hell. When he got there, he was told that he could choose how he was going to spend eternity. So a tour guide was showing him around, showing him all the options of how he could spend the afterlife. They go to one room where everyone is standing on their heads on a concrete floor. The guy says, “Oh, that’s terrible! To spend eternity like that! That’s horrible!” The tour guide tells him it’s okay, he still can choose from some other options. So they go on to the next room, and everyone there is standing on their heads on a concrete floor, but this time they have pillows. The guy looks at it and says, “Well, I guess that’s better, but it’s still pretty awful. I dunno…” The tour guide tells him not to rush, he can still look at some other rooms. So they go to the next room, and everyone is standing around knee-deep in shit. The room absolutely stinks. The stench is nauseating. But everyone is milling around drinking coffee, chatting and laughing. It looks pretty social. The guy figures, maybe it’s not so bad. So he decides to spend eternity there, and with that the door shuts behind him. He goes and gets a cup of coffee, and it’s pretty good. It almost compensates for the horrible stench. He starts talking to a few people, maybe smokes a cigarette. He’s getting used to it, thinking it’s sorta allright. Just then a whistle blows and there’s an announcement. “Allright, guys, coffee break’s over, back on your heads!”

Which brings me to the inevitable question: are there coffee breaks after death?

This question has been raised countless ways in countless cultures. Food and consumption are inextricably linked to death and the mourning ritual among totally divergent cultures, for various consistent reasons. I will address several practices which I have sorted according to which party does the consumption: the deceased, the mourners, or nature; and for whose benefit does eating occur: the deceased or the mourners.

First, I will look at the ritual of the deceased eating or being served food for their own benefit. Foodstuffs or its accoutrements—pots, jars, and the like—are commonly included in the ritual of disposing of the dead. For example, the Riverine Yumans throw food onto the pyre in which they cremate their dead. By providing the dead with food on their final journey from the living world, cultures that include food in their funeral practices intend to insure that their dead will be adequately provided in the afterlife.

The Badagas require their dying or deceased to eat in order to ensure a good journey in the afterlife. Shortly before death occurs, the dying person is to swallow a coin dipped in butter. This rite of hana benne (‘coin butter’) is done even for children and those dying in hospitals, as it is thought that a person cannot get to heaven without this coin to pay for the food, drink and tolls on his journey there, and the butter will give him strength for it. Dying people tend to choke on the coin, hastening death, which has inspired the alteration of the custom to insert the buttered coin into the mouth after death.

The deceased may also be served food not to aid them in the afterlife, but in order to benefit the survivors. Where the Days of the Dead are celebrated, food is provided for the deceased on an annual basis. As Jed discussed this last week, I will not describe the Days of the Dead ceremonies in detail, but will briefly consider the implications and associations of their providing food for the dead. During the Days of the Dead, families set up an altar to honor the dead spirits, including bread of the dead, sweets in the shape of skulls, fruits and vegetables, and other foods associated with the dead. No one would eat anything laid out on the altar for fear of antagonizing the spirits of the dead until the morning of the second Day of the Dead, when the spirits are thought to have left. In one account, a celebrant expressed the belief that the angry ghosts would tie their feet up in the night if they ate from the altar. In this case, the living provide food for the dead in order to protect themselves from the wrath of angry spirits. Food serves to placate the deceased and maintain their non-confrontational interactions, if any, with the living.

Similarly, mourners themselves may eat or share food with the deceased in order to protect themselves from angry spirits. Ancient Finnish people believe in the immortality of the soul and fear that ghosts will haunt the living unless thoroughly appeased and fully reconciled with all of their surviving intimates. At their funerals, participants partake of liquor, and the deceased is also provided with liquor in the grave. A domestic animal is often slaughtered, a practice which suggests a sacrificial meal. During mourning, the survivors eat and drink alcohol in a memorial meal by the grave, together with the deceased as it were, so as to prevent him from getting angry. According to one author, all this reflects the survivors’ guilt and the projection of their own feelings onto the deceased. As social interaction centers around meals, the living strive to amend whatever remaining differences they have with the deceased during ritualized meals, so as to avoid haunting by a still-angry spirit.

In the Limbu culture, mourners may eat food in order to capture the spirit of the deceased. When a violent death occurs, the soul has no opportunity to resolve itself to death, and therefore roams the earth in search of its body. Such a death is often treated with a chaotic funeral and mourning period. Domestic animals are sacrificed and cooked for the participants of the funeral, in an attempt to capture the spirits of the deceased. Unless they consume the sacrificial food, the Limbu risk being haunted by unhoused spirits.

To achieve the same freedom from haunting by spirits, mourners may also practice ritualized restrictions from eating. After a normal non-violent death in the Limbu culture, close relatives enter a period of mourning for several days during which they are not allowed to eat foods coated in salt or oil. At the end of the mourning cycle, relatives, friends, and neighbors attend a feast for the dead. The principal mourners sit in front of the feast until after the offerings have been made to the deceased’s spirit. Then, the guests are fed and the period of pollution with the spirit of the deceased is ended. Eating normal food marks the finality of a soul’s presence and power on earth. According to the author, “close relatives undergo a social death through isolation and are reborn at the mourning feast, where their connections to the deceased are severed.” Therefore, restriction from food denotes a social death associated with the real death of a relative. Eating implies resurrection for the living, and final, complete death for the dead.

The Sebei eat only special foods and are restricted from other foods during the mourning period to cleanse away the pollution of death. The major ceremony during the Sebei mourning ritual is called “chasing away the death.” The ritual aspects are devoted to matters that serve as purification of the mourners. Involved are the slaughter of a bull from the herd of the deceased and the distribution of the meat. Widows and brothers of the deceased are restricted from certain foods during the liminal period. For both the Limbu and the Sebei, death pollutes those closest to the deceased, and they must ritually alter their diets in order to cleanse themselves of death and rejoin the fully living.

Mourners not only use the ritual of eating to benefit themselves, but also consume food to assist the dead. In The Death Rituals of Rural Greece, Loring Danforth gives a detailed account of the eating rituals associated with mourning in rural Greece and attempts to understand them in a framework of the social structure. The primary purpose of eating in regard to a Greek death is to ensure the forgiveness of the deceased’s sins. Food and drink are distributed in the church courtyard after burial and five years later at exhumation to this end. Traditional foods include sweet red wine, koliva (boiled wheat with sugar, cinnamon, nuts, and raisins), bread, honey, pastries, sweets, and other candies. Upon receiving an offering of food, each person recites, “May God forgive her/him.” People at a burial, with the exception of the immediate family of the deceased, must ritually each a handful of koliva and a piece of bread along with wishing for forgiveness on behalf of the deceased before proceeding to the house of the deceased. None of the food left over from the distribution at the graveyard may be brought back into the house of the deceased. Later, the survivors serve water, cognac, and candy and then coffee and pastries. Afterward, “the priest lights a candle and places it in a tray of koliva, beside which are a glass of wine and a slice of bread. The koliva, wine, and bread are together known as the makario (that which is blessed). After the priest recites a prayer over the makario, he distributes it to the close relatives of the deceased to eat. Everyone then repeats the wish that God forgive the deceased. Finally a simple meal is served, usually consisting of rice, potatoes, or beans; olives, cheese, and wine.” On the third day, ninth day, and six months after death, koliva and sweets are again ritually consumed in the church courtyard, and the family of the deceased hosts another serving of cognac, coffee, and biscuits. With each meal, mourners repeat the wish that the dead be forgiven of all her/his sins.

For forty days following the death, friends and relatives visit the immediate family every night to bring a meal and keep them company. The relatives of the deceased consume no meat during these forty days. On the Sunday morning prior to the fortieth day, the family supplies bread and wine for a liturgy performed in honor of the deceased. “Then people return to the church. Here, in the same location where the body of the deceased lay forty days earlier, stands a tray of wheat boiled in milk and sweetened to form a kind of pudding.” The pudding, called panhidha, is also referred to as makario, like the plate of koliva, bread, and wine at the funeral meal. Makario is also similar to the word used to euphamistically refer to the deceased. Afterward, the family serves a more elaborate meal than the funeral meal, which includes meat, indicating that the family is beginning to reincorporate itself into normal social life. This forty day period is analogous to Christ’s death and resurrection.

In rural Greece, mourners eat vicariously for the dead who are believed to have the same needs as prior to death. The author quotes an experienced mourner discussing the needs of the deceased, “It has a mouth and hands and eats real food just like we do. When you see someone in your dreams, it’s the soul you see. People in your dreams eat, don’t they? The souls of the dead eat too.” The survivors strive to aid the dead in finding their necessities. They believe that the food distributed at funerals will find its way to the dead. “People say: ‘We distribute food so that the dead will eat, so that the dead will find food in front of them.’” On the five All Souls’ Days throughout the year, each woman in rural Greece exchanges plates of food with her neighbors and bring offerings of koliva, bread, cheese, olives, and fruit to the village church where they are blessed by the priest and distributed in honor of her dead relatives. The blessed food is eaten on behalf of the dead.

In the Badaga culture, food is used as bribery to appease the needs of the dying. Visitors from neighboring villages come to the home of a dying person, bringing with them gifts and milk for the family of the sick person. The family must feed the visitors. Visitors are necessary as no one should die alone in Badaga society, so serving good food is the traditional method of tempting visitors to be companions for the dying when approaching death. Without companions assisting them at the time of death, the Badagas would experience difficulties and complications in the afterlife.

Seventeenth-century England saw both ritualized, commercialized, and professional consumption of food associated with death. Food was habitually consumed, partly as hospitality but also to act as a focus for ideas about the redemption of sin: the refusal of a dole would have been grossly disrespectful to the deceased and to the bereaved. In seventeenth-century Herefordshire a ‘sin-eater’ consumed the sins of the deceased by eating a loaf of bread and drinking a bowl of ale over the corpse as it journeyed to the grave; for this he was paid six pence by the bereaved. Special biscuits were produced for funerals, with wrappers specially printed for the occasion.

In the end, through one means or another, the dead themselves end up being consumed by nature. The body decomposes, or is burnt, or, in the case of the Sebei, the dead is placed in a bushy place for the hyenas to devour. The Sebei funeral is entirely concerned with the living and only cursorily interested in the body, not the soul, of the dead. By allowing nature to consume the deceased, living Sebei are free to focus on their own recuperation from a death close to them.

The Greek justify nature’s consumption of the dead through an understanding of cyclical nourishment and rejuvination. Essential to this justification is the association of human life to plant life. Plants die and then rejuvinate annually. The metaphor of human life as plant life is therefore an attempt to deny that human death is final. It is an assertion that human life, like plant life, is repetitive; that there is life after death.… The use of koliva, the boiled wheat distributed at death rituals, symbolizes the resurrection of the dead.

As Danforth explains it, “Food passes from nature to culture; it mediates the opposition between nature and culture.… When human beings eat products of the earth they are literally establishing an identity between themselves (culture) and their food (nature).… Culture becomes nature. The natural becomes the cultural through the mediation of food.… If plants are food, and if human beings are like plants, then human beings must also, at least in some contexts, be food.” Death reverses the food chain relationship between nature and culture. Human beings and plant life form a mutual nourishment for each other. If that which dies is really eaten, then from death there emerges life.

For most cases in rural Greece, the liminal period of death does not end until five years after death, when the flesh is thoroughly decomposed and the bones are exhumed. Wine is poured over the body at the funeral to ensure that the bones will be left clean after the five year liminal period. The soul will not be admitted to heaven until the flesh is decomposed, or eaten by the earth. Thus there is a clear parallel between the consumption of food by the living at the memorial services and the consumption of the body of the deceased by the earth. Both kinds of food, the koliva, panhidha, and bread, on the one hand, and the body of the deceased, on the other, must be eaten in order for the soul to enter paradise. And, as I noted earlier, the word makario denotes both the body of the deceased and the traditional funeral foods. Both forms of makario—the food and the body—are given the same treatment; both are blessed by the priest with the same cross, initials, and candles. Therefore, the Greek understanding of earth eating the dead assists the living to justify belief in everlasting life, and aids the dead to reach heaven.

To conclude, I have found that the ritual consumption of food shares consistent significance throughout diverse cultures. First, I described examples of the dead being served food to assist them in the afterlife. Next, I listed practices where the dead are served food or mourners eat food on the behalf of the dead in order to appease the dead and keep them from haunting the living. I also noted restrictions on eating observed to cleanse mourners of the taint of death. Following, I related instances where mourners eat in order to aid the deceased in the afterlife. Finally, I considered the dead as food itself, to be eaten by the earth as part of the entire food chain of nature.

As Woody Allen puts it in Love and Death, it’s like one big restaurant. At the end of the film, when he’s describing to Diane Keaton what it’s like to be dead, he tells her, “You know the chicken at Tressky’s? It’s worse.”

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