Filling the void - eating after a funeral
September 17th, 2011
08:00 AM ET
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Starve a fever, feed a cold. So goes the conventional wisdom, but what's on the menu for a wounded heart?

Post-funeral meal rituals vary wildly - not just from pole to pole and faith to faith, but from mourner to mourner. Some families decamp to a restaurant, too overwhelmed to tidy a house or light a stove. Some can barely wend their way through their kitchen for all the foil-covered dishes borne over by neighbors doing what they can to fill the suddenly hollow space in a once-full home.

Others gather around coffee urns and cookie plates in church basements and V.F.W. halls and some simply sidle off quietly, too shaken and broken to imagine they'll ever have the strength to eat again.

This past Wednesday, my family said farewell to Reverend William Ribando - my beloved "Uncle Chicken" as I'd called him since my childhood. Parkinson's Disease had taken hold of him, slowly and cruelly. Here, at the end of his journey, two dozen of his brothers in the Congregation of Holy Cross gathered together to bring him to his final resting place.

The lay crowd was small - just family and a few faculty members. Stonehill College in Easton, Massachusetts houses Father Bill's order, but the bulk of his teaching and Catholic ministry had been at King's College in Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania. So there were no grieving parishioners bearing covered potluck dishes of funeral potatoes, raisin-studded funeral pies, hard boiled eggs or sheet cakes.

After the burial, we wended our saddened way to a common area of the priests' residence for a communal meal. Father Moody, a priest who my uncle had mentored over the course of several decades, stopped me for a moment outside. "I know you're a food editor, so this probably won't be up to your usual standards, but we've done the best we can."

"Nononononono...don't worry." I promised. "I am grateful for everything you've done today. Fanciness of food is the very last thing I'm worried about today."

That's true on a day of grief, or any day, for that matter - especially if someone is kind enough to cook for me. It surely would not have ruffled Father Bill. He was a gentle man who enjoyed an occasional cold beer, but allowed himself almost nothing else in the way of creature comforts. He took his order's vow of poverty to heart. Meals out with him were to diners and pancake houses and ended with a battle to grab the check - and he'd never ever let me win.

Father Moody led me inside, where my family and many of the priests had already gathered around circular wooden tables and were eating, solemnly. He showed me the lay of the land - a buffet of cold cuts and sandwich makings, a salad bar, a cart full of fresh fruit and cookies, and a bowl of iced soft drinks. He gestured to the lone chafing dish on the table. "And that's American chop suey."

I'd never heard it called that before, but it looked for all the world to me to be the beefaroni I'd grown up eating at my family's table. It's not pretty, elegant or fancy stuff - just ground beef, elbow macaroni and tomato sauce cooked together in a skillet or a casserole dish. I'd been too sad to eat that morning, and suddenly, I was ravenous. I put some on my plate and sat down with my family.

Moments before, it had seemed wrong to do something so life affirming and self indulgent as eating - especially something at all delicious - while Father Bill had suffered for so long and would never sit down to a meal again. Penance was clearly in order, enough plain water and bread to keep breathing and walking, but nothing else.

But someone had clearly made this dish - stood at the stove and cooked this comforting food, knowing that some grieving people would need to eat. I took a forkful.

It was humble, delicious and solid and tasted as if it were made with love. Father Bill would have approved. I cleaned my plate.

In your family or community, do people have a post-funeral food ritual? Please share it in the comments below.

soundoff (91 Responses)
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    October 11, 2014 at 10:49 pm |
  2. rita mercer

    I live at a lake community and I put on funeral luncheons for members or families. I have a list of members here whom I can call on and after deciding what type of luncheon I am having I let them know what we need or perhaps what they would like to bring. I ask that casseroles be in a 2 qt size so we eliminate lots of leftovers. It is a well balanced menu with comfort foods and lots of coffee and punch.

    November 3, 2013 at 4:47 pm |
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    July 13, 2013 at 8:16 am |
  4. Christine Korthaus

    I've told my daughter that I don't want an actual funeral, just for everybody to get together, set up a bar, serve all my favorites (Philly cheesesteaks and chocolate top the list), and good music. I want it to be a party-no formality, nothing like that. A keg party with a lot of Springsteen would sum me up pretty well and it'll provide them with a lot of laughs.

    April 17, 2013 at 7:56 am |
  5. Rosie

    I understand the kindness of people dropping off food for the family that seems helpful since they probably don't feel like cooking...but the funeral luncheon after just seems like something I could not do if I had to plan a funeral...just seems like I have been to so many where the family seems overwhelmed with the whole luncheon thing, I have even seen instances where there was competition as to who was going to plan and so the luncheon...just my thoughts

    November 25, 2012 at 1:48 pm |
  6. Southern Comforter

    I am from GA and I must say that southerners usually stick with traditions. When someone passes away in our family, it usually takes at least seven days before the funeral is actually performed b/c it custom to contact as many family and friends to attend, if possible. Most guests (close ones) bring covered dishes for everyone to enjoy. We consider funerals to be a form of a reunion and a time to laugh, remember and feast together. I have never known anyone to cry after the funeral because we always talk about the good times. The host (child, spouse or parent) of the home would have enough food to last at least three days, before having the energy to cook for themself. Eating after a funeral and celebrating life will always be our family tradition. What could be better than being with the Lord with no more pain or suffering. God Bless!

    October 4, 2011 at 3:44 pm |
  7. Kelly

    Funeral potatoes and Ham made with love from all the ladies at church!!!!! Even when they don't know your family. It is like a giant hug. When my baby died we had so much food we did not know where to put it. Ironic since I didn't want to eat. But when someone put hot food in front of me that they lovingly prepared while thinking about me and my grief I ate it with gratitude. It was so nice when my family started coming in for the funeral that they could go in the kitchen and find just about any comfort food that has ever been. The kindness of others really sustained me. I can not imagine though the grieving family catering a gathering afterwards. It is hard enough just being with others much less having to host a party.

    September 29, 2011 at 12:36 am |
  8. Lizzie Bluebird

    My mother laid in a coma in January 2009 in Germany. I got on a plane and raced to be by her side. After 10 days of being able to celebrate her at the hospital, she went on in her sleep. During that time my girlfriend since 6th grade and her family took me in, fed me home made southern German food(roasts, gravies,sauces,and home made spaetzle ), made sure I slept (nothing like a shot of Cointreau to a non drinker before bed time to knock you out).
    After my Mom went on and an entire apartment with 45 years worth of love and memories had to be emptied, the best thing was her boyfriend of 17 years coming by with a warm meal from a traditional restaurant and us sharing a meal, laughing and crying about this sweet wonderful little dynamite stick of a woman. If it hadn't been for all those loving, kind people feeding me and taking care of me, I think I could have easily lost my mind.
    I will never stop being grateful for all they have done for me.

    September 20, 2011 at 10:18 pm |
  9. Tiffany

    My father was a professional chef in his life, so when he passed away two years ago, it was interesting to see who came to his viewing and memorial service. Both events (seems weird to call them events) were packed with people from his past and present, for whom he'd cooked a meal. It was so neat to see everyone who had that common thread over 25 years come together to celebrate his life. After the memorial service, we had a pot luck lunch at my parents' church, with traditional, homemade church luncheon staples (crock pot meatballs, casseroles, etc.) I have a tough time eating when I'm sad, but I was definitely touched by the gesture everyone made to cook to honor my dad's memory.

    These days, I will go through my dad's recipes and make healthier versions for my family, as my own memorial for him. I also have his professional knives that I use daily in my home kitchen.

    September 20, 2011 at 11:52 am |
    • Jerv

      THank you for sharing.

      September 20, 2011 at 12:02 pm |
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