We have spent a lot of time weekly talking about funeral planning and its many associated facets including estate planning, funeral costs and funeral expenses. One area we haven’t discussed is the funeral meal, one of the most memorable events following a funeral and one which requires the efforts of many to insure that it is handled well.
While I was pondering this subject I came across an old column from the New York Times internet edition which was right on the mark. While I am not a big fan of the Times, I do enjoy many of the specialized articles like this one which was found in the August 10, 2005 issue of the dining and wine section. Written by Abe Opincor, it reminded me of some of the old stories my mother passed along about funerals she had attended and the preparation involved.
Opincor talks about a lady named Vertamae Grosvenor, a cultural correspondent for National Public Radio, who grew up in South Carolina. Ms. Grosvenor wondered why people tended to eat so much at funeral meals and she provided her theory, and it was a simple one: “We ate so much because that way we knew we were alive.” Opincor further goes on to discuss variations in funeral meals and traditions by sections of the country and social grouping.
Being a Southerner by birth, I found that some of his comments about my region closely paralleled some of those things told to me by my mother. I also had some personal experiences which support his points.
Mom used to say that women in the South, particularly in small towns and rural areas, always had a casserole in the freezer just in case it was needed for a funeral. This paralleled directly with the Opincor piece which also brought back memories of fried chicken and rich desserts. We just weren’t as conscious of health issues or maybe it’s just that we decided comfort foods were needed at a time of great stress. I guess at times like that we really didn’t worry about what the doctor advised. This is probably true in many cases today as well.
But there was something even more dramatic in the way of cultural differences that I had to affirm as having witnessed myself. If you have never attended an African-American funeral in the South you have missed the feast of a lifetime. The church social hall, which is where family and friends gather after the service, features a smorgasbord of foods salty and sweet, hot and cold, with many different aromas and textures but all delicious.
My first personal experience with such a funeral was during my final active duty Army assignment and I was assigned to a post near my hometown in Tidewater Virginia. It was then that I learned the part that food really played in the celebration of a Christian death by the black community. One of my top civilian employees lost her father and she asked me to come to his funeral; she told me that I would never forget it. And what a celebration it was. Not only was the service joyous and uplifting with forward looking eulogies and wonderful spiritual music, the array of food served was something I never before had seen.
Being a weight watcher, I tried to graciously limit my intake and give my condolences when a giant of a man with a warm smile grabbed my shoulder and told me I couldn’t go home hungry and he wasn’t going to take no for an answer. Snapping his fingers, two young ladies went to the serving line and prepared a plate for me that I couldn’t finish in a week. It had fried chicken, baked ham, sliced pork, sweet potatoes, green beans, okra and so much more.
Looking at the table I could see that they had brought me what they thought I would like. They had left many wonderful concoctions that obviously were enjoyed by their community, traditional soul food, but they were uncertain if I would like it. Before the day was over I had sampled some and while it requires the development of a taste for it, it was surprisingly good.
Well, things were delicious and I ate until I thought my waistband would snap and I just had to stop. The Elder came by and smiled and told me that he knew I could do it. Then the same two young women came over with a tray full of rich desserts but I said I just couldn’t possibly eat another bite. They relented but did send me home with two desserts, a wonderful bread pudding and a huge homemade slice of pecan pie.
Never before had I been fed anywhere like that, let alone at a funeral. But as I said my goodbyes they all told me that maybe I should go back to my church and tell them how a real funeral meal is served. And I have never forgotten it.
The next morning I put in an extra fifteen minutes on my morning run and added some extra repetitions to my weight workout. If I ate like that again I think I would be attending my own funeral but, wow, was it good.
And I again remembered what my mother had told me as a boy about having a frozen casserole at the ready at all times. Those wonderful folks at that traditional African-American church certainly didn’t have any frozen casseroles on the table, that’s for sure. Everything was done from scratch after learning of the death of someone dear to them, and it was truly a labor of love. It was also a celebration of the end of life on this earth. They were celebrating the transition of this good man to his seat in Heaven with the Father and his Savior.
I tell you this story because I think it points out two very important things to be taken from it. First, if you are a Christian and the decedent is also a person of faith, the final tribute and that special meal should truly be a joyous occasion and, secondly, the family can’t do this alone. They need friends and family to step up to the plate so that they can properly attend to their own sorrow and closure. And nothing shows your love for them like helping to take care of the funeral meal. Remember this when you are called to help a family facing this situation.
God bless you all and have a wonderful week. And God bless America.
Author’s book page: outskirtspress.com/honeyweshouldaboughttheark