Death Warmed Over: Funeral Food, Rituals, and Customs From Around the World

Food has always been a part of our funeral rituals, no matter where you are from. The act of consuming food is a shared community experience, a show of support for the grieving, and an act that can be described as symbolically but defiantly kicking Death in the face.

Half sociology book and half cookbook, Death Warmed Over: Funeral Food, Rituals, and Customs From Around the World by Lisa Rogak examines funeral rituals from 75 different cultures and the food associated with them.

The book also offers recipes for those who wish to contribute to the funerary feast. Neatorama presents some excerpts from Death Warmed Over.

For most cultures today, sharing a meal after the funeral has become pretty standard; indeed, it’s considered rude to refuse. In any case, there’s no better way to prove you’re alive, as compared with the body in the box you’ve just said farewell to, than by eating. Actually, most people would include sex in their response, and indeed, food combined with carnal hunger can sometimes provide a double dose of post-funeral vitality, not to mention a jump in the birth rate exactly nine months later.

The simple truth is that food goes a long way in helping survivors cope with their loss.

Some people may believe it’s distasteful to spend time thinking about how death and food are so interconnected – after all, both are an essential part of life – but I’d like to think that many more are intrigued by discovering the differences, as well as the similarities.
When you’re sharing a meal after a funeral you’re really poking a thumb in the eye of death. After all, with the simple act of eating, you’re assuming that you’re going to need the fuel for the future you expect you’re going to have, unlike the poor body in the box whose death is the purpose for the get-together. You can ask any caterer: most people eat a lot more food at funerals than at weddings. And that cuts across all cultures.
New Orleans Jazz Funerals

(Image credit: Derek Bridges)

You may have to check your calendar if you happen to stumble upon a New Orleans jazz funeral, because it’s easy to mistake it for Mardi Gras in the French Quarter, although there’s a casket with a real body inside. Jazz funerals in New Orleans are legendary events. Though a funeral is traditionally melancholy and a private family event in nature, jazz funerals in the Big Easy are intended to be public events, at the very least so that onlookers can contemplate their own mortality while enjoying the music and the spectacle.

Mourners who participate in the slow, plodding parade from the church to the cemetery will occasionally intersperse their strides with slightly jerky motions, a holdover from their African heritage in which these movements were designed to keep the malevolent spirits at bay. Actually, it’s more of a dance than a walk, with colorful costumes and clothing instead of dour, dark outfits. Food, booze, and jazz bands accompany the procession, which is often led by a horse-drawn hearse and escorted by a coterie of New Orleans’ finest, which may include drag queens, strippers, and musicians who just happen to be passing by and decide to join the party for an improvisational free-for-all.

The nice thing about this recipe for Jambalaya is that you can start it in the morning before the funeral and it will be ready by the time you return home.

Funeral Jambalaya

(Image credit: Flickr user Lori L. Stalteri)

    2 cups boiled ham, diced
    2 medium onions, coarsely chopped
    2 stalks celery, diced
    1 green pepper, seeded and diced
    1 28-ounce can whole tomatoes
    1/4 cup tomato paste
    3 cloves garlic, minced
    1 tablespoon minced parsley
    1/2 teaspoon thyme
    2 whole cloves
    2 tablespoons olive oil
    1 cup long-grain converted rice, uncooked
    1 pound fresh or frozen shrimp, uncooked, shelled and deveined
Place all ingredients except the shrimp in a large slow cooker. Mix well. Cover and cook on Low for 8 to 10 hours.

One hour before serving, turn slow cooker to High.  Add the shrimp and stir. Cover and cook until shrimp are pink and tender.


Hindus regard death as a twelve-day period during which the family of the recently deceased is considered to be unclean. This obviously influences the culinary practices of the household. Even though some Hindus are not vegetarians, relatives must follow a strict vegetarian diet during this period, and any meat or eggs must be removed from the house as soon as possible after death. During the first 24 hours after death, cooking is prohibited, and though relatives and friends can bring food to the house, close family members usually fast the first day. Upper-caste Hindus usually hire cooks to prepare meals for the family and guests – which can number into the hundreds – for the entire twelve-day period.
Cremation is the normal mode of disposing of bodies for Hindus, and is customarily done a day or two after death. However, to ensure the secure passage of the soul to the next world, a ceremony known as a Shraddha must be performed. Shraddha is an elaborate feast and gift-giving event; Hindus believe that everything that is given away – food or gifts, often metal vessels and cash – will eventually end up in the hands and stomach of the deceased. Some Shraddhas last one day, while others can go on for weeks. Feasts can be elaborate or they may merely consist of rice and vegetables, along with the chapati bread that’s served at most Hindu meals.
To successfully complete each Shraddha, however, the manes – the spirits of other dead relatives – must be appeased. However, because they’re used to being dead, they’re easily gratified with boiled rice balls known as pinda that are thrown out of the door after each meal.
Those still alive, however, require something a little bit more substantial, like samosas.


(Image credit: Flickr user ironypoisoning)

    2 cups all-purpose flour
    1/2 teaspoon salt
    4 tablespoons peanut oil
    4 tablespoons water
    4 medium russet potatoes, boiled in their jackets and allowed to cool
    4 tablespoons peanut oil
    1 medium onion, minced
    1 cup fresh shelled peas
    1 tablespoon fresh ginger root, finely grated
    1 fresh hot green chili, finely chopped
    3 tablespoons fresh cilantro, finely chopped
    3 tablespoons water
    1-1/2 teaspoons salt
    1 teaspoon ground coriander seeds
    1 teaspoon garam masala
    1 teaspoon cumin
    1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
    2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
    Peanut oil for deep frying
Sift the flour and salt into a large bowl.  Add 4 tablespoons of oil and mix into the flour until the mixture resembles coarse breadcrumbs.  Slowly add about 4 tablespoons water and gather the dough into a stiff ball.

Empty dough out on a floured board.  Knead the dough for about 10 minutes or until smooth.  Make a ball.  Rub the ball with 1/2 teaspoon of oil and slip it into a plastic bag.  Set aside.

Peel the potatoes and cut them into 1/4 inch dice. In a large saucepan, heat 4 tablespoons of oil over a medium flame for a minute. Add the onion. Saute until translucent. Add peas, ginger, green chili, cilantro, and 3 tablespoons water.  Cover, lower heat and simmer until peas are cooked, about 10 minutes.  Add more water if necessary.

Uncover and add the potatoes, salt, coriander, garam masala, cumin, cayenne, and lemon juice.  Stir to mix.  Cook on low heat for 3-4 minutes, stirring gently.  Remove from heat and let cool.

Turn the dough out onto the board and divide into eight balls. As you work with each, keep the rest covered. Roll the ball out into a 7-inch round.  Cut in half with a sharp knife. Take one half and form a cone, with a ¼-inch overlapping seam. Secure the seam with a dab of water. Fill the cone with 2-1/2 tablespoons of the potato mixture.  Pinch the top of the cone closed by creating a ¼-inch seam, secured with a dab of water. Using the prongs of a fork, seal the top seam. Proceed with the rest of the dough and filling until you have 16 samosas. Cover.

In a large saucepan or wok, heat 2 inches of oil over a medium-low flame. When the oil is heated, gently place a few samosas into the oil, or as many as the pan will hold in a single layer. Fry the samoas, turning frequently, until they are golden brown and crisp, about 8-10 minutes.  Drain on paper towels and serve.


(Image credit: Jonathunder)

In countless airings of Prairie Home Companion, where Garrison Keillor reverently details the joys of a Lutheran church supper where all the relatives of the Norwegian bachelor farmers were expected to bring a Hot Dish. It took many years before I figured out that he was talking about what we growing up in New Jersey referred to as the elegant French import, le casserole.

I’ve never heard Mr. Keillor refer to it as a Funeral Hot Dish, however. Those in the Hot Dish Brigade usually synchronize plans in advance so that the requisite offerings of Jello mold with marshmallows and maraschino cherries – known as the salad course – prepackaged rolls, cold cuts, and Hot Dish are in the correct proportions. Sometimes due to the short notice of a post-funeral luncheon or supper, some might be caught unprepared, and instead must rely on the funeral home or caterer to prepare the meal.

Good Lutherans would consider that to be a travesty, and an insult to the memory of the deceased’s in whose honor the meal is served. The serious Hot Dish Brigade always has provisions at the ready, well-stocked pantries, ready to drop everything and head out the door, potholders in hand, 90 minutes after hanging up the phone at the news, one to bring to the grieving family’s home, and one set to cool for the funeral luncheon later on.

Anything less would be frowned upon, where Hot Dish church suppers are weekly events and where more than one church member has asked to be buried with a fork in his hand.

Funeral Hot Dish


(Image credit: Flickr user Tom Burns)

    1 pound ground beef
    1 medium onion, chopped
    1 pound macaroni, cooked, drained, and cooled
    1 10-1/2 can condensed tomato soup
    1 14-ounce can corn, drained
    1 14-ounce can tomatoes
    Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
    4 individually-wrapped slices of American cheese
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. In a large saucepan, brown the ground beef and onion. Grease a four-quart casserole dish. Add the cooked beef, onion, macaroni, soup, corn, tomatoes and salt and pepper to the casserole. Mix well. Top with the cheese slices and bake for 30 minutes.


In many Japanese villages, although visitors frequently bring food to the home where someone is on his deathbed, it is anathema to cook it. So instead, it is served raw. Perhaps this is due to an ancient belief about cooking the life out of food and heating a meal in the house will only hasten an impending death. After the person dies, however, the women in the household proceed to cook enough rice and vegetables to feed an entire village. Curiously, it is forbidden to serve fish at the funeral feast.

Japan is primarily a Buddhist country, so upon death, a Buddhist wake known as a tsuya is held at the family home. A monk conducts the service while a photograph of the deceased is placed on the family altar along with a bowl of rice with a pair of chopsticks standing vertical from the bowl.

The funeral is usually held the day after death which is immediately followed by cremation. It is actually against the law in Japan to bury an intact body, though ashes and presumably body parts can be buried under the law. Once the body is cremated, mourners use chopsticks to separate the bones from the ashes and place them in a special urn. Afterwards, a funeral meal known as an otoki is offered by relatives; before guests leave, the family will sprinkle some salt on mourners’ shoulders to remove the threat of death from their lives.

Like Mexico’s Day of the Dead, Japanese celebrate Obon, a three-day period in midsummer when dead relatives are believed to return to their ancestral lands, and it’s up to the living to ensure they leave happy. The days leading up to Obon are hectic ones, with relatives cleaning not only the graves of the returning ancestors, but their houses, too, and preparing food offerings for the cemetery, and the Buddhist altar at home.    

One Obon custom is to carve an eggplant into the shape of a horse and place it by the grave on the last night of the festival so the deceased relatives can expedite their way back to the afterworld after the festival ends. You can try your hand at carving an eggplant, or you can just make the following recipe

Japanese Eggplant with Sesame-Ginger Glaze

(Image credit: Flickr user gaku.)

    1 tablespoon rice-wine or cider vinegar
    1 tablespoon soy sauce
    1 tablespoon hoisin sauce
    3 tablespoons sesame oil
    1 tablespoon sugar
    2 tablespoons minced fresh ginger
    3  cloves garlic; minced
    8 small Japanese eggplants, ¼ pound each, halved lengthwise
    2 tablespoons peanut oil
    1  teaspoon salt
    1  teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
    2 scallions, minced
In a small bowl, whisk together the vinegar, soy sauce, hoisin, sesame oil, sugar, ginger and garlic. Use a pastry brush to spread the oil over the eggplant. Sprinkle with salt and pepper.

Set the barbecue grill to medium heat. Place the eggplant, cut side down, on grill and cook for 5 minutes. Turn the eggplant and brush with the glaze. Cook until the eggplant softens. Transfer the eggplant to a serving platter and drizzle with more glaze. Sprinkle with minced scallions and serve.

These are only four cultures and recipes among 75 that you'll find in Death Warmed Over: Funeral Food, Rituals, and Customs From Around the World by Lisa Rogak. Death Warmed Over is available in ebook form from Amazon.

Visit Lisa Rogak at her website, where you can read what others are saying about Death Warmed Over.

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Sounds like everyone wants to eat well at after-funeral gatherings! All of the stuff listed here sounds good. I would say that the casserole is pretty much a given across American middle class after-funeral gatherings. I grew up in Texas and that pretty much sounded like the same kind of casserole we ate that someone brought to grandfather's after-funeral gathering at my house.
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