From eating the dead to feeding the dead to comforting mourners, food has always been a staple of burials.
Paleolithic humans ate their dead in an effort to both honor and incorporate their essence, keeping them a part of their lives.
Ancient Romans fed the dead via tubes connected from grave top directly to the mouth of the corpse.
Early Christian mourners were so fond of feasting at graves that it became common for cemeteries to contain kitchens.
From the middle ages, corpse cakes were placed on the deceased’s body to absorb his virtues or his sins.
“We went from the actual consumption of a human body to leaving spiritual nourishment for that person,” culinary writer Sarah Lohman explains.
In Hungary and other parts of central Europe, a cake was put on the deceased’s chest for an hour to “absorb” his virtues before being consumed by his closest relatives.
The woman of the house prepared leavened dough and placed it to rise on the linen-covered chest of the corpse.
It was believed the dough “absorbed” the deceased’s virtues that were, in turn, passed on to mourners who ate the corpse cakes.
In an Irish tobacco-based version, a bowl of snuff was placed on the chest of the dead person or the lid of the coffin, with each of mourners taking a pinch.
So many came forward that the bowl had to be replenished regularly, giving rise to the saying “disappeared like snuff at a wake”.
During the 17th and 18th centuries, a family could even hire a sin-eater who would consume the sins of the dead.
By the late 18th century, small cakes became popular as souvenirs for mourners.
In the Yorkshire and Lincolnshire sections of England, they were called bluntly “burying biscuits.”
In an 1802 letter, one local described his earlier experience at a Yorkshire “funeral of the richer sort”: “
They had burnt wine and a paper with two [Lady Finger] biscuits sealed up to carry home for their families. The paper in which these biscuits were sealed was printed on one side with a coffin, cross-bones, skulls, hacks, spades, hour-glass, etc… sealed with black wax.”
In the U.S., these were known as “funeral biscuits”, “dead cookies” or “funeral cookies”.
Diaries from Hudson Valley Dutch communities include recipes for doot coekjesor “dead cookies” that were “large as saucers” and dipped into hot spiced wine.
One recipe called for 50 pounds of flour, 20 pounds of sugar and 10.5 pounds of butter for 300 cookies delivered to the funeral in bushel baskets.
While the British upper class preferred to give away hot-dog-roll-sized ladyfinger biscuits, early Americans used a shortbread type of cookie stamped with decorative designs.
American funeral cookies were spiced with caraway, or sometimes ginger or coriander.
Then they were stamped with beautiful designs like “a skull and crossbones, or a rooster that represents resurrection. A rose was a popular motif, especially if it was for a child.”
Some cultures cut out the middleman and gave cake directly to the deceased.
In Jamaica, small, sweet corn cakes poetically called journey cakes were placed into the casket to help fortify the deceased for the long journey to the afterlife.
The Victorians refined these gruesome rituals into the funeral biscuit.
Funeral biscuits became as much a staple of the bakery business as wedding cakes.
It was fashionable, and a sign of status, to order your funeral biscuits from a specialist supplier rather than making them at home.
The commercial biscuit wrappings were ornately printed with bakery advertisements as well as uplifting biblical quotes and poems.
Small sacks of the confections were often sent around to family and friends as death notices that one could read as well as eat!
One of the more unusual objects in the Pitt Rivers Museum is described as:
‘Paper wrapper used to contain biscuits given to a mourner at the funeral of Mrs Oliver, 7 Nov., 1828. Cleveland district, Yorkshire. Biscuits of special make were distributed to mourners, wrapped in paper envelopes sealed with black wax, at a recognized stage in the ceremony, together with wine. The biscuits were round & resembled sponge-cake. Female “servers” distributed the biscuits & wine & when the funeral procession was marshalled, walked immediately in front of the coffin. Formerly the “biscuits” were called Avril, arvil or arval bread’
In some regions of Italy, biscuits in the shape of bones called ossi di morti (“bones of the dead”) and even in the shape of organs are still served to mourners.
Siobhan is a freelance writer, research addict and lover of twisted history. If you like horrible but amazing history, check out her website www.interesly.com or Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/interesly. Or you can reach her through www.siobhanoshea.com.