Everybody looked at me with amazement when I told them I was travelling to Melbourne especially to find out more about funeral food. To be specific, I was attending the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival event, Funerals and Food at Nelson Bros. Funeral Services. The afternoon was held at the funeral parlour with fascinating UK jellymongers Sam Bompas and Harry Parr.
On the day, the bow-tied boys arrived at the historic funeral home in Williamstown Victoria by traditional hearse and were greeted by host Adrian Nelson and food celebrity Elizabeth Chong. After we moved into the chapel, Chong kicked off the fascinating panel discussion about the history of funerals and food. Other panelists were Alan Samuel, George Haralambopoulos and Priscilla Nelson-Feaver.
The history of funerals and foods we were told falls into three main categories.
1. food that is left for the deceased in the afterlife
2. food for the family as sustenance during bereavement
3. food as a celebration for friends after the service
Common themes seem to be that across cultures and religions food is an important part of all events. With funerals, the original intent was to keep food tastefully simple as it would be deemed to be bad taste to hold something too elaborate. Both the Chinese and Jewish traditions hold the number 7 as important. Now I know not to serve seven courses if I ever hold a Chinese banquet, not unless it is to commemorate the life of the recently deceased, that is. Another common thread is using sweet to “soften the business” and to take away the bitterness. In her thorough description of a recent funeral banquet held at The Flower Drum in Melbourne, Elizabeth Chong intrigued us as she stepped through the meaning of each of the seven courses. The food is different for the family, she told, as they only eat a vegetarian banquet and no meat, to symbolise that there has been enough death for one day.
My own recent funeral experience is very personal, in trying to organise something meaningful and tasteful last year for my mother. Without a strong cultural tradition upon which to call, my attempts to include mum’s famous ANZAC biscuits in the catering, sadly went unheard by the funeral caterers.
In any regard, fifth generation Nelson, Priscilla gently reminded us that the time to share food after a funeral, allows people to come together immediately after the shock of the funeral, and gives them a safe space to start to fondly recall memories of the loved one and to start the healing.