My sweet aunt passed away last week, with the funeral held this past Monday at my childhood church. Like at every proper Texas funeral, there was a spread of food laid out afterward that would rival any church potluck supper. The gorging that commences after a funeral is both cathartic and comforting: If you're shoving your face full of lemon bars and chicken salad sandwiches, you don't have to talk to anyone about what just happened.
The practice of feasting after a funeral dates back to funerals themselves. The two practices have been almost inextricably tied to one another since ancient Egyptian and Greco-Roman times, and likely go back even further in history than that. In West African villages, cattle and poultry are slaughtered and feasted on to commemorate the dead after they've been buried. The Jewish custom of Seudat Havra'ah is probably the most straightforward about the true intent of a post-funeral meal: Translated, it means "meal of consolation," a meal which is prepared for the mourners by their community.
Preparing food for a funeral, or taking it to a family in mourning, is just as ancient a custom as funeral feasts. Although some people take solace in cooking, most grieving families can't fathom a life without their loved ones, much less what to put on the table for dinner. In Ethiopia, edirs -- communal funeral societies -- are as common as neighborhood watch groups. When a member of the community passes away, the other members of the edir help pay for the funeral, take care of any young children and -- of course -- cook food for the family.
But what do you take to a family in mourning?