5 Fascinating Food & Death Traditions from Around the World
The cooking and sharing of food is not only used to celebrate life; since early human history, it has also played an important part in marking the death of a loved one, and these rituals continue in many different forms today. From Mormon funeral potatoes to bread shaped liked bones, here are five food-related death traditions from around the world.
Did you know in Japan it is terribly rude to stab your chopsticks into a bowl of rice and then leave them there? Or that two people should never pass food from one set of chopsticks to another? Both taboos come from funeral traditions in Japan. During the wake, a bowl of rice with a set of chopsticks sticking out is set out as an offering, and after the body is cremated, the family separates the bones from the ashes with ceremonial chopsticks, passing the bones from one person to the next and placing them in an urn.
Utah & Idaho
Mormon funeral potatoes have a special place on mourners’ tables in Utah and Idaho. Members of the Mormon Relief Society typically prepare this dish of shredded or cubed potatoes, cream soup, sour cream, cheese, onions, and buttery cornflake topping for the bereaved, although it may also be made by friends and family members. The dish is so iconic, it was even depicted on pins made for the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City.
• Get the recipe: Funeral Potatoes – Cooking Channel
In Thailand, it has been a tradition since the late 1800s to print “funeral books” (nang seu ngam sop in Thai) and distribute them to those who pay their respects to the deceased. These books might include poems; personal stories; and photos from weddings, graduations, or other major life events; as well as a few favorite recipes. One prominent chef in Thailand, David Thompson of Nahm, has collected over 500 funeral books and used the recipes he found to inspire his restaurant menu.
With its filling of raisins, sugar, and spices, funeral pie is said to be a staple of Amish funeral meals because its ingredients are inexpensive and readily available, so it could be whipped up for mourning community members at any time of year. But The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America has another take, pointing out that before the 20th century, raisins had seeds, so a cook baking a raisin-based pie would have to devote a lot of time to seeding each fruit for the filling. This effort may have been considered a gesture of devotion to the deceased.
• Get the recipe: Funeral Pie
To celebrate the Mexican holiday Day of the Dead, or Día de Muertos, families build altars to honor the deceased and cover them with items of special significance — including food and drink. Decorated skulls made entirely of sugar are placed on altars, alongside the favorite dishes and alcoholic drinks of the deceased. Pan de muerto, a type of sweetened bread often shaped to look like bones, is another edible altar offering, as well as a celebratory food for the living during the Day of the Dead holiday. And sometimes pumpkin or amaranth seeds are left as snacks for the visiting spirits.
Do you have any food-related death traditions in your family or community?