It’s a southern thing, or is it?–food after funerals

jeffersonmemorialMy great-grandmother died last week. She was 99 and a half. She’d been saving the pink dress she had worn on her 75 and 90 birthdays for her big centennial in August, and she almost made it.

We grand and great-grandchildren processed into the funeral home in our most somber black outfits. My grandmother, the daughter of the deceased, wore sage green. I learned a church congregation’s worth of names that I never intended to remember. The lot seemed ancient to me, although they must’ve been decades younger than my great-grandmother.

It had been raining for two days straight. My patent leather peep toes sunk in the mud as I trudged toward the red velveteen-wrapped folding chairs perched on torn astroturf by the graveside. The casket was off-kilter.

Afterward, her small Baptist church served a luncheon for our family in the church’s basement. Cold ham, green beans, and a host of unidentifiable casseroles.

Every funeral in which I’ve been a part has included lunch. Every time I begrudgingly choke it down. It is a thoughtful and generous gesture. But it’s awkward and forced. I don’t get it.

So, naturally, I googled it.

I’d always assumed it was a “southern thing,” in the way that people attribute door holding and sirs and ma’ams to the South. But I found a New York Times article that proved me wrong. Food after funerals is pan-American and spans cultural lines. Some of the meals are formal and catered, some follow specific traditional cultural guidelines, some last days and, as in my most recent experience, some feature sweet tea and apple salad.

Eric Berger of the Houston Chronicle argued that eating after funerals is a 12,000 year old tradition, evidenced by Stone Age burial sites in modern-day Israel. A tradition that has found footing with bereavement specialists, rabbis, funeral directors, funeral-specific hostess guidebooks, archeologists and New York lawmakers. There’s even a website that specializes in after-funeral etiquette.

In practice, I still hate eating after funerals. But I respect the gesture more now. It’s more than a nice thought or a way to feel like we’re doing something to help our grieving friends. It’s something that connects us as people, as human beings, to each other and to our past.

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