Oh, how many of us yearn for a simpler time and place? A time before cell phones, when people couldn’t always reach us. A time before the Internet, when we didn’t accidentally read Game of Thrones spoilers on our Twitter feeds (I’m still bitter about the Red Wedding). A time before Nicki Minaj, when all of the beez were free.
You know that wholesome time I’m talking about – that time when little children would sit around, eagerly waiting for someone to die so they could eat funeral cookies.
Lest you think I’m romanticizing the past, allow me to offer this selection from an article entitled “Scotch Funerals,” published in 1883’s The Living Age:
My grandfather…always had one or two of his grandchildren awaiting his return from any burial he attended, who were often not disappointed in seeing the coveted morsel produced from his pocket and having it shared among them.
If only today’s children knew what treats they were missing out on, they might do like children of yesteryear and eagerly await the death of others!
I was first introduced to the concept of funeral cookies – also called funeral biscuits, burial biscuits, or funeral cakes – at last year’s Death Salon, a weekend conference on death in Los Angeles. In the Victorian era, these biscuits were given out at the end of funerals for mourners to take home, or sent to those who were unable to attend the funeral. Some wrappers were even printed with the deceased’s name and date of death, as well as lines from hymns or Bible verses.
The spiced, buttery biscuits I tried, which were served in wax-sealed envelopes, were made Sarah Troop, the founder of the blog Nourishing Death: An Examination of the Relationship Between Food and Death in Rituals, Culture, Religion and Society. While Troop recognizes that the concept of a funeral biscuit might seem creepy – Hey, your aunt’s dead! Here’s a cookie! – she notes that:
…when you put [the biscuits] in the context of what purpose they served, either as sustenance, a gesture of gratitude from the hosts, (in this case the bereaved family), or a keepsake/favor, all of these are still practiced in our modern society, they have just taken on different forms. For example, the funeral favors of today might be funeral programs, commemorative rubber bracelets or decorative stones with a sentiment and the name of the deceased engraved on it.
Moreover, humans have both celebrated and mourned with food for thousands of years. We break bread together as a sign of friendship, we feast together to celebrate holidays, and we give gifts of food in times of need, grief, and struggle (gifts that are both symbolic and practical, since many simply don’t want to or don’t think to prepare food when in mourning).
Thus, it’s unsurprising that several cultures have funeral cake and cookie traditions. The types of cakes vary wildly depending on the culture and era, from sponge cake-like biscuits in Wales and nearby parts of England to molasses cookies in Colonial America to, according to Troop, “a dark, almost black cake of chocolate” in Belgium. The timing of the cookies in the funeral proceedings varied as well – some were given at the beginning of the funeral, some in the middle of proceedings, and some at the end, like the Victorian biscuits mentioned above. In Funeral Festivals in America, Jacqueline S. Thursby writes of early traditions in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania:
…a prevailing funeral custom was that a young man and young woman would stand on either side of a path that led from the church house to the cemetery. The young woman held a tray of funeral biscuits and sweet cakes; the young man carried a tray of spirits and a cup. As mourners passed by, they received a sweet from the maiden and a sip of spirits from the cup furnished by the young man. A secular communion of sorts, these were ritual behaviors that transcended countries of origin and melded a diverse young nation with the common cords of death, mourning, and tradition. The funeral biscuit served as part of a code representing understood messages of mourning, honor, and remembrance.
While many of these cakes were served simply to provide comfort, sustenance, and a token of memory in a somber time, some funeral cakes had other uses. For example, Troop notes, “Some Jamaicans used to place small, sweet corn cakes into the casket with the body of the deceased to help fortify them for the long journey to the afterlife, called ‘Journey Cakes.’”
And in parts of Wales and rural England, there were biscuits especially for sin-eaters.
The belief at the time was that, by consuming food and drink that had been passed over the body of the deceased, sin-eaters could take on the sins of the dead. Generally, these sin-eaters were poor, paid a pittance for their work, and treated with disdain in a community. Sometimes, however, the sin-eating was performed by more prominent members of the community or even members of the funeral party. In 2010, BBC News reported on efforts to restore the grave of Richard Munslow, a prominent Ratlinghope farmer who was buried in 1906 and purported to be the “last-known sin eater.” And the 1894 edition of Bye-Gones: Relating to Wales and the Border Countries, includes a letter from woman named Gertrude Hope, who had this note about an 1892 funeral in Shropshire:
Directly the minister ended, the woman in charge of the arrangements poured out four glasses of wine and handed one to each bearer present across the coffin with a biscuit called a ‘funeral biscuit.’ One of the bearers being absent at the moment, the fourth glass of wine and biscuit were offered to the eldest son of the deceased woman, who however, refused to take them, and was not obliged to do so. The biscuits were ordinary sponge biscuits usually called ‘sponge fingers’ or ‘lady’s fingers.’ They are however also known in the shops of Market Drayton as ‘funeral biscuits.’ The minister, who had lately come from Pembrokeshire, remarked to my informant that he was sorry to see that pagan custom still observed.
While sin-eating might indeed have pagan origins, the sin-eating in this case was conducted as part of Christian funerals. In the BBC piece about Richard Munslow, Reverend Norman Morris, the vicar of Ratlinghope, noted that sin-eating “was a very odd practice and would not have been approved of by the church but I suspect the vicar often turned a blind eye to the practice.”
Troop says that when she tells people about funeral biscuits, their responses are things like, “Weird,” “Creepy,” or, “That’s morbid!” But I think it’s a tradition we should bring back; I subscribe to Thursby’s idea of funeral cakes as “a secular communion of sorts.” No matter what sort of religion or ritual you follow in mourning, there is something powerful about coming together with others, celebrating the life of someone you care about, and sharing the same food. And if you want to eat their sins at the same time, well… have at it with one of the recipes below.
* In my research, I did come across a book entitled Sin Eater, published in 2005, that describes how to create a modern “sin-eating ministry.” But while the text recognizes the history of sin-eating, it instead describes how sin eaters can now work on the living, and without food as conduit, by taking the energy of suffering from someone, shaping “it into consumable patterns of your choosing,” consuming as much as possible, and grounding “the leftover energy by projecting it into either an object, the earth itself, or dissipating it into the ambient environment.”
If you don’t have a pastry bag, you can use a Ziploc with one corner snipped off. I baked them at 350°F.
The whites of three eggs, one-third cupful of powdered sugar, yolks of two eggs, one-third cupful of flour, one-eighth teaspoonful of salt, one-fourth teaspoonful of vanilla. Beat the whites of the eggs until stiff and dry, add sugar gradually and continue beating. Then add the yolks of the eggs until thick and lemon-colored, and flavoring. Cut and fold in flour mixed and sifted with salt. Shape four and one half inches long and one inch wide on a tin sheet covered with unbuttered paper, using a pastry bag and tube. Sprinkle with powdered sugar and bake eight minutes in a moderate oven. Remove from paper with a knife. Lady fingers are much used for lining moulds that are to be filled with whipped cream mixture. They are often served with frozen desserts and sometimes put together in pairs with a thin coating of whipped cream between, when they are attractive for children’s parties.
From The Up-to-date Cook Book, 1897
Many of the original funeral cake, cookie, and biscuit recipes have been lost to time – as Jacqueline S. Thursby writes in Funeral Festivals in America, “The molasses cookies passed out to people attending funerals in parts of early America were so common as to nearly have been lost to history. They were so common that mentioning them in a history would be like mentioning that the sky is often blue.”
This not-too-sweet recipe combines a few elements of different early American and European funeral cookies – molasses, the butteriness of shortbread, and (optional) caraway seeds.
1 cup butter
¾ cup sugar
½ cup molasses
2½ cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 teaspoons ginger
1 tablespoon caraway seeds (optional)
Cream together butter and sugar; add molasses and egg. In a separate bowl, stir together the dry ingredients, then mix the dry ingredients with the wet. Cut in circles, and cook in a 350 degree oven 10-12 minutes.
Adapted from 365 Cakes and Cookies: A Cake or Cooky for Every Day of the Year, 1904
Photos by Meg Favreau. Funeral biscuit wrapper courtesy of My Will and Wishes.