Feeding grief

One of the more unusual elements of the conference is the concluding roundtable and Victorian funeral tea. Although unorthodox, it seems curiously appropriate to debate how people experienced the materials of mourning while sampling the refreshments traditionally served after funerals. Claire finds out more.

Dickens wrote satirically of the ‘impossibility of getting on without plum-cake’ and the ‘ceremonious apparition of  a pair of decanters containing port and sherry and cork’ at the customary funeral tea. For him, the consumption – both material and gustatory – that was considered necessary for a ‘respectable’ funeral was incompatible with genuine grief. The disconnect between feeding and feeling is clear when Dickens describes the behaviour of one inheriting nephew, who:

“ate as much plum-cake as he could possibly come by; but […] felt it decent mourning that he should now and then stop in the midst of a lump of cake, and appear to forget that his mouth was full, in contemplation of his uncle’s memory”

– ‘Medicine Men of Civilization’ (1863)

A clear tension underlies a ritual that combines nourishment of the living body with sympathy for a dead one. The inheriting nephew fails to reconcile the two. Despite this incongruity, food has long been an essential part of funeral ceremony that unites families and communities. The feast was a central component of sixteenth and seventeenth-century funerals, sometimes amounting to over half the total cost. The provisions varied according to the wealth and social standing of the deceased, but often it was considered a point of honour to supply a generous repast. When the wealthy Mrs Currer of Kildwick Hall died in 1697, her funeral feast included an expensive variety of meats, pickles, creams and cakes. During the nineteenth century arrangements became more modest: ale, port wine and sherry were typically offered, sometimes accompanied by spiced buns and cakes, funeral biscuits, bread, cheese and fruit. In recreating elements of the funeral repast, we hope to bring delegates into direct sensory engagement with some of the more palatable materials of mourning.

Acknowledgements:

  • Professor John Chartres for trying to help me locate an authentic recipe for Victorian plum-cake.
  • Peter Brears, ‘Arvals, Wakes and Month’s Minds’ in Laura Mason (ed.), Food and the Rites of Passage (Totnes: Prospect Books, 2002), 87-114.
  • Pat Jalland, Death in the Victorian Family (Oxford: OUP, 1996).
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