Funeral Rites Across Different Cultures: The Significance of Food

Around the world, food is a way to honor the departed and offer comfort to the bereaved.  Through the vehicle of food, mourners come together and support one another during a difficult time.  Especially in times of loss, food provides a sense of community and connection.  Many cultures see food as important aspect in funeral rites relating to the safe and comfortable passage of the soul.

Among North Indian Hindus, relatives of the departed are expected to consume only simple vegetarian foods in the thirteen days following a death.  In what is known as antim samskara, the core series of sacraments performed after a loved one has passed, friends and family create positive karma (literally “action” in Sanskrit) to help prepare the soul for its next incarnation.  Funeral ceremonies typically culminate in a feast, with relatives sharing a meal of the departed’s favorite food.

The tradition of feeding mourners after the funeral is a common thread in Judaism.  The practice of serving meals of consolation, or seudat havra’ah, is quite widespread in Jewish communities, and represents the continuity of life and solidarity.  Jewish mourners returning home from a funeral are given traditional comfort foods, such as lentils, hard-boiled eggs, and breads, but any simple food is acceptable.  Round foods-eggs in particular-are one of the most popular meals of condolence since they are a symbol of life and renewal.   Friends and neighbors typically provide food for the mourners to spare them the time and energy of cooking and cleaning.

Among Hongkongers, an all-night memorial mass may be held.  Taoist priests and Buddhist nuns may also play a role.  In these ceremonies, it is customary to call out the departed’s favorite foods as a way of beckoning the soul.  At dawn, family members burn paper houses, banknotes, and paper clothing to bring good luck to their loved one in the afterlife.  The custom of offering food is deeply entrenched in Chinese culture and mourners present at the memorial typically eat baked meats.  Food is taken home after the ceremony concludes.  In Chinese culture, food symbolizes a well-nourished journey for the new spirit.

Food has its own unique funerary and mourning traditions that guide the bereaved through loss.

Woodlawn continues to be a non-sectarian cemetery without a specific religious affiliation.