Death and Burial

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DEATH AND BURIAL. As far back as records go, we have evidence of the dead being laid to rest with care and ritual. Burial gifts, including food vessels and household utensils from different eras, have been discovered in archaeological remains in various parts of the world. These gifts are thought to have been intended for the use of the deceased on his or her journey to paradise or the land of the dead and to secure entry and acceptance in the new abode. Even those who suffered violent death were buried in specific ways, and it is of interest to note that two young men who appear to have been ritually sacrificed during the European Iron Age had consumed a meal before being killed. The so-called "Tollund Man," buried in a Danish bog about 500 B.C.E., had eaten a meal of porridge of some kind, and the "Lindow Man," buried in a peat bog at Lindow Moss, Cheshire, England, sometime during the fourth century B.C.E., had consumed "a kind of wholemeal bread consisting of different kinds of grains," just prior to his violent death (Green, 1992, pp. 132 and 210111).

Although the Christian churches have, for centuries, regulated the liturgy and ceremonies for the dying and the dead, people everywhere have created their own death rites and have often retained them in addition to those of the official Church. Food and drink are often important elements of these rites, and they are sometimes associated with the dying state. In Ireland, for example, as Patricia Lysaght has shown, the dying were thought to suffer from hunger and thirst at death, and thus a dying person's request for food and drink always had to be granted. This food, served in anticipation of death, was termed lón báis (death sustenance); it was thought to be necessary to enable the person to die and thus to enter upon the journey to the land of the dead (Lysaght, 1995, p. 32). In many cultures this journey was said to be long and hazardous, and sustenance, provided by the living, was considered necessary. Food and drink were, therefore, served at various junctures during the wake and funeral, so that, as Greek tradition expresses it, "the dead may eat" (Danforth, 1982, Plate 22).

These foodstuffs were often left specifically in the presence of the deceased or placed in the coffin, or put into or placed on the grave. Formerly, in parts of Britain, bread and beer, or salt and bread, were consumed by a so-called "sin-eater" in the presence of the deceased; this person was thought to take on the sins of the deceased and thus enable him or her to be incorporated into the Christian otherworld (Hole, 1953, pp. 224225; Kvideland, 1993).

Food and drink consumed by the living during the wake and at the post-funeral meal were evidently also thought to provide necessary nourishment for the deceased, and thus to facilitate the transfer to the other world. Such food and drink have also been looked upon as a means of strengthening family and community in the face of death.

Food and drink also featured in ceremonies for the dead held at intervals varying from thirty or forty days after death in some societies, to three years among the Skolt Lapps of northern Europe when the dead person's final incorporation among the confraternity of the dead was thought to take place (Storå, 1971, p. 272), to several years in cultures where secondary burial was customary. At Christmas, Easter, and Whitsuntide (or Pentecost), the family dead were remembered by, among other things, gifts of food and drink. On November 2, the Feast of All Souls, prayers were recited throughout much of Catholic Europe for the souls of the dead. In addition, food and drink were placed on graves or left ready in the family home for deceased members, particularly the suffering souls in purgatory, who, according to an ancient and widespread popular belief, were thought to congregate there from midnight until cockcrow.

Kinds of Drink and Food

Alcoholic beverages were a feature of wake and funeral hospitality throughout much of Europe until relatively recent times (Ó Súilleabháin, 1967, pp. 154157). In Latvia, for example, the expression dzert bïres, 'to drink a funeral', is testimony to this (Dumpe, 2002, p. 125). The apparently liberal provision of alcohol at wakes and funerals in Ireland was repeatedly condemned by secular and ecclesiastical commentators from the seventeenth to the twentieth century. Occasional references to elaborate funeral meals that included beer, wine, beef, and wheaten bread occur in seventeenth-and eighteenth-century literature, but by the late nineteenth century, the wake-foods commonly mentioned include shop-bought goods, especially white bread, fruit cake, jam, and tea, and alcoholic beverages in modest quantities. Today, where wakes survive, food (sandwiches, cake, tea, coffee), and alcoholic beverages (wine, beer, Guinness, spirits) are served, but the most significant funeral repast in rural and urban Ireland today is generally the postburial meal in the mourning home or in a restaurant (Lysaght, 2002).

In eighteenth-century Scotland, England, and the Isle of Man, food and alcohol were liberally provided at wakes and funerals by people of rank (Bennett, pp. 207211; Hole, pp. 228229 and 233; Moore, p. 160). More typical, at least for Scotland, in recent times, was the provision of cheese and oatcakes, sometimes short-bread, served with ale or tea, and spirits, to which could be added wine and biscuits. The corpse-watchers received whisky (and pipes and tobacco), and often tea, or bread and cheese with ale, about midnight. Funeral guests were similarly treated. If the cemetery was some distance away, whisky was sometimes served at a particular spot en route, and again in the cemetery after burial. In parts of northern Scotland a meal called a dredgy was served in the deceased's home after the burial (Fenton, 2002, pp. 212213).

In Portugal, as shown by Mouette Barboff, grain, bread, and wine have played significant roles in death customs. Lamenting women were paid in rye and wheat, while water, millet-bread soaked in wine, and a coin were placed in the deceased's coffin, for the journey to the otherworld. In the north, where death customs remain particularly strong, funeral bread is distributed at the church and cemetery. In the Beira region, two cornbread loaves, divided into eight pieces, are given to the poor on removal of the coffin from the house, while in the Barroso, rye loaves (o carolo ) are distributed on leaving the church. In the Minho, a slice of cornbread with a piece of fish (sardine or cod), or wheaten bread (molete ), is distributed to all funeral guests. The priest is given bread, wine, or grain, and perhaps fish or meat. Nowadays, the tendency is to pay the priest in cash. On the first anniversary of the death, thirty or forty loaves of bread called pão da caridade (charity bread) or pão das almas (soul bread), baked by the family, are distributed to the poor of the parish in return for prayers for the deceased. On the Feast of All Souls (November 2), children call to houses asking for the pão por Deus (God's bread) for the holy souls (Barboff, 2002, pp. 204206).

Elsewhere in Europe, the provision of food and drink on the occasion of death has also been highly structured. In Westphalia in northern Germany, it is still customary to provide Beerdigungskaffee (funeral coffee), with plain or sugar biscuits (Zwieback/Zuckerzwieback ), pastries, and open sandwiches (belegtes Brötchen ) for the funeral participants in a local hostelry after the burial. As late as the 1960s, a very elaborate meal (Leichenmahl ) consisting of, for example, bouillon, a large meat platter with roast sausage, pork, and fowl, served with potatoes, red cabbage, and apple-sauce, followed by a pudding dessert, cigars for the menfolk, and afternoon coffee with pastries and sandwiches, might still be provided in well-to-do farmhouses for the relatives and near neighbors of the deceased.

In parts of Lower Austria in the 1970s, food and drink were served at certain junctures during the wake for the dead. On completion of the rosary, bread, wine, and fruit such as apples, dried prunes, and pears were provided. After the singing of funeral songs, more food and drink, which could include coffee and the much-appreciated crumbled bread soaked in coffee and eaten with a spoon, were served. Schnapps was provided in most areas, followed sometimes by black bread but mostly by white Totenbrot (funeral bread), with wine or beer. Much alcohol was drunk. Meat was only seldom offered.

Early on the morning of the funeral, relatives, friends, neighbors, and the coffin bearers were invited to the funeral breakfast, consisting mostly of coffee and white bread, although a nutritious meal with a substantial fat content was sometimes served to the coffin bearers. Schnapps and wine were also provided.

The funeral meal (Leichenmahl ), to which relatives, neighbors, helpers, the priest, and mass servers were invited, was held either at an inn or in the mourning house. It could be very elaborate, consisting of several courses and including various kinds of bread and cheese, and, in certain areas, wine or beer (Huber, 1981, pp. 74147).

In eastern Europe, festive food and drink were also associated with death in Slovakia. A slice of bread and a small glass of brandy were placed in the room for the soul of the deceased. Bread was placed in the coffin or grave or given to beggars or gravediggers in payment for prayers for the deceased. In the mountain regions, bread, salt, curds or cheese, and brandy were served. A cock was killed for the death of a farmer and a hen for that of his wife. A weddinglike feast was held for an unmarried deceased, especially a young man or woman (Stolicˇná, p. 118). A similar practice formerly took place in Hungary (Viski, pp. 181182) and elsewhere in Europe (cf. Fielhauer, 1970).

In parts of southern Europe, for example in Greece, food plays a very substantial role in the elaborate and extended funeral customs of Greek Orthodox tradition. (Danforth). At the burial, prior to the closing of the coffin in the grave, the priest pours a bottle of red wine in the form of a cross over the shrouded body of the deceased. Koliva (boiled wheat mixed with sugar and cinnamon and decorated with nuts and raisins) and bread are shared in the church courtyard by the funeral participants, who pray for the forgiveness of the deceased. None of this food is brought into the deceased's house, where the guests are offered water, cognac, cigarettes, and candy as they convey their condolences to the relatives. After coffee and biscuits have been served, the priest blesses koliva, wine, and bread (i.e., makario, "that which is blessed") and distributes them to the close relatives of the deceased (Danforth, 1982, pp. 4243).

On the eve of the third day after death, koliva, bread, candy, and pastries are again distributed in the church courtyard after the memorial service at the grave, and guests again receive coffee, cognac, biscuits, and candy in the house of the deceased. These ceremonies may be repeated on the ninth day and six months after the death. Forty days after death, another memorial service is performed in the cemetery, after which a sweet wheaten pudding called panhidha is blessed by the priest and served to the guests in the church courtyard together with special funeral bread, pastries, honey, candy, and vermouth. Finally, guests are invited to the deceased's house for a very elaborate meal that includes meat, indicating that the relativeswho have abstained from meat for forty daysare being reincorporated into the normal life of the community (Danforth, 1982, pp. 4344).

On occasions of collective commemoration of the dead, called Psihosavato (Soul Saturdays or All Souls' Days), offerings of koliva, bread, cheese, olives, and fruit are brought by women in rural Greece to the village church. There they are blessed by the priest, who also recites the names of the village dead. The food offerings brought by the women individually in honor of their own dead are then distributed to the others present in honor of all the dead (Danforth, 1982, p. 56).

The rite of exhumation, in which food and drink also feature, is normally performed after five years, at which stage the deceased is thought to have reached his or her final resting place. The priest pours a bottle of red wine over the bones, making the sign of the cross three times with the liquid. Those present are offered "a small glass of sweet red wine," koliva, "a slice of bread, a spoonful of honey, and several pastries, sweets, and other candies," by distant relatives and friends of the family. On returning to the family's house, they are "offered water, cognac, and candy" and later "coffee, small biscuits, and pastries," after which they compliment the family in a traditional manner for the reception provided (Danforth, 1982, p. 21).

Many Old World death customs, including the provision of refreshments at wakes and funerals, traveled to the New World with emigrant groups. William Woys Weaver shows that in colonial America, the provision of lavish funeral hospitality, either in the deceased's home or in a local hostelry, was well established by the late eighteenth century. Among the foods served by the Pennsylvania Dutch was a rich fruit cake, but funeral biscuits were also common. Some varieties, like the Dutch doodkoecks (death cakes), bore the initials of the deceased and were given to mourners in old New York. Others featured highly symbolic motifs such as a rooster, a heart, "a cherub or winged head . . . an hourglass, or even a skull" (Weaver, pp. 107108). As in the Yorkshire Dales and Lincolnshire in England, the biscuits were flavored with caraway or tansy seeds (Weaver, p. 108). In Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, "funeral bread" (bread "sweetened with sugar or honey and containing caraway seeds or dried fruit"), funeral biscuits, and wine were served to the guests as they left the church on their way to the cemetery (Weaver, 1989, p. 110).

Commemoration of the dead during the feasts of All Saints and All Souls (November 1 and 2) is an especially exuberant affair in Mexican Catholic tradition. During the festival of Todos Santos (All Saints), or Dia or Dias de Muertos (Day or Days of the Dead), extending from the eve of October 30 to the evening of November 2, offerings of food and drink are made to the dead by being placed on the "dressed" graves and on the very elaborate altars for the dead that are prepared in the family home (Carmichael and Sayer, 1991, pp. 1421).

In the New World, therefore, as in the Old, the provision of food and drink at wakes and funerals was an important act of pietas and effectively a social obligation. Thus, their provision was highly regulated and a matter of strict observance in many different societies.

See also Christianity ; Day of the Dead ; Religion and Food ; Sin and Food .


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Patricia Lysaght


Sin-eating as a funeral custom was once common in parts of England, Scotland, and Wales. It is mentioned in records from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century. For a trifling payment, a man or woman of the locality known as a sin-eater was believed to take upon him or herself, by eating and drinking, the sins of the deceased. According to John Aubrey, writing in 16861687 (Aubrey, 1972, p. 179) and referring to the County of Hereford in England, the rite was performed when the deceased was being removed from the house for burial. The corpse was placed on a bier before the door, and a loaf of bread and a bowl of beer were passed over the deceased to the sin-eater, who consumed them and was given a sixpence as payment. The sin-eater was thus thought to assume the sins of the deceased and thereby bring ease and rest to the departed soul.

What is probably an older form of the custom is mentioned for western Scotland in 1879. Here the sin-eater was taken into the corpse-room where he was said to have consumed a plate of salt and a plate of bread placed on the breast of the corpse, and thus to have eaten his sins (Napier, 1879, 6061).

The custom of sin-eating is apparently older than the seventeenth century and is said to derive from the scapegoat in Leviticus 16: 21, 22. What might be regarded as a symbolic survival of the custom in parts of Europe was the passing of drink and a funeral biscuit over the corpse, or the placing of a funeral cake on the breast of the deceased for consumption by the nearest relative, or, indeed, the placing of salt on the breast of the deceased as was common, for example, in Ireland. The "death cakes" introduced into America from Europe in the seventeenth century and served to guests at a funeral and the "burial cakes" still made in parts of rural England in the early twentieth century might well reflect the custom of sin-eating.