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Chances are good that you already know what food will be served at your funeral. That’s because there’s comfort in the familiarity of passed-down traditions. The presence of specific foods and drinks is the common denominator at wakes and funerals across various cultures.
There’s a somewhat scientific reason why food plays an integral role in the mourning process. According to Michelle Palmer, a Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker and the executive director of D.C.’s Wendt Center for Loss and Healing, the acute phase of grief significantly disrupts regular eating habits, and lasts up to three months.
While some overeat to fill what feels like a void, Palmer says others experience a significant loss of appetite. “Either they have GI upset so their stomach is sour and food sounds unappetizing, or their grief fills all the way to the top of their throat and the thought of swallowing feels impossible,” she says.
“The nervous system is over-activated,” Palmer continues. “There’s adrenaline and cortisol, like being in a fight-or-flight situation. If you think about when there’s adrenaline running through your system, the last thing you want to do is eat.” Palmer believes the meals that follow funerals are about coaxing the grief-stricken into eating.
To gain a window into what foods and drinks various countries serve, City Paper spoke to D.C.-area chefs and restaurateurs with ties to South Korea, Vietnam, India, Cyprus, Afghanistan, Ghana, and Venezuela. Traditions vary from region to region and neighborhood to neighborhood, so what is true for these individuals and their families may not apply to a country’s entire population. Some shun aggressive flavors and drinking alcohol, while others put on one hell of a party.
When someone dies in Northern India, food is stripped of its key flavor agents—garlic and ginger—for seven days, according to Sanjay Mandhaiya. The New Delhi native is a chef and partner at Pappe.
Mandhaiya says Hindu mourners wear white and follow a sattvic diet comprised of foods aiming to bring clarity to mind and body. That means no meat, no heavy seasonings, and no ghee (the clarified butter that gives Indian food its richness). “It’s boring food with some roti,” he says of the potato dishes and subtle vegetarian curries traditionally consumed after the death of a loved one. “You’re basically detoxifying your body.”
Families don’t serve dessert unless the deceased lived a long life, according to Mandhaiya. “If you’re much older and had a rich life that is to be celebrated, people will enjoy a dessert called ladoo,” he says. The sweet orbs made from flour and ghee can be enhanced with ingredients like chopped nuts, raisins, and coconut.
Some Vietnamese also strip down their cuisine while paying tribute to the dead, according to Nam Viet owner Ngoc Anh Tran. But while Hindu Punjabis give up flavorful food for a week, Vietnamese Buddhists go vegan for 49 days.
After someone dies, family and friends convene at the deceased’s house once a week throughout the seven-week period to share a meal and remembrances. “It’s a vegan spread in Vietnamese culture called chay,” Tran says, with her son Richard Nguyen translating. “Of those spreads, there’s fermented tofu and steamed veggies.”
“When my dad passed, we did 49 days of a lot of vegan food,” Nguyen says. Both of his parents are from Can Tho, a city in southern Vietnam. “By about the fourth day, I was tired of tofu but we had to endure because in Buddhist culture it means that if you endure during that time, it’s good for them. It’s a good note to send them off into the afterlife.”
Edible and potable offerings also play a role in Vietnamese funeral customs. Loved ones erect a small altar where they can place food, drinks, and fake money that’s burned on certain holidays. The 49-day mark is when the family ceases bringing rice to the altar, but that’s not when grieving ends. The next milestone is 100 days after death, when mourners celebrate the “end of the tears.” The mourning process concludes on the second anniversary of the death.
In Korea, modern funerals last a modest three days, according to Mandu co-owner Danny Lee. They’re held in what are known as jang-rae-shik-jang—buildings with many funeral rooms, which are generally attached to a hospital.
“You walk in and there’s at least one family member there 24/7,” Lee says, noting that Koreans work long hours and like to be able to pay their respects when time allows. The person manning the observance room is there to receive guests who then perform a bowing ritual.
After visiting the room, mourners meet family members in the facility’s dining hall to enjoy a spread of food and generous pours of beer and soju, a neutral-tasting Korean distilled spirit. “If you’re a guest, you pay observance to the family and then you drink with the family,” Lee says. “It’s similar to a wake, but it’s all done immediately after someone passes.”
As far as food, Lee recounts seeing rice, jjigae (stew), japchae (stir-fried noodles), stuffed rice cakes, and banchan at these gatherings. Banchan (or panchan) are small Korean snacks that accompany a meal. “Literally there are tables and tables of banchan ranging from kimchi and pickles to seasoned veggies, salted shrimp, crispy tiny anchovies, and egg custards,” he says. A stew called yukgaejang, which contains red chili peppers said to ward off ghosts, is also served.
If Korean funerals allow the mood to slip from solemn to slightly celebratory with help from the soju, Ghanaians raise the mood to just short of jubilant. A funeral director told CNN in 2014 that an average funeral in Ghana costs between $15,000 and $20,000, including the price of a casket carved into the shape of anything from a beer bottle to a sneaker to a ship.
“Funerals are huge in Ghana,” says Prince Matey, the chef and owner of Appioo African Bar & Grill. “They spend more money on the funeral than when the person is alive. It’s crazy. I truly don’t know why.” It’s better to have more attendees, which is why Matey says he’s heard of families hiring fake mourners. “They even have professional dancers who carry the casket and are dancing with it,” he says.
The meal following the funeral is elaborate, according to Matey. Small appetizers like doughnuts, chips, and peanuts are typically available throughout the day, then after the burial the family gathers to indulge in dishes like fried fish with kenkey (a dumpling-like ball of fermented corn dough), jollof rice, grilled chicken, goat stew, waakye (rice and beans), okra soup, and tilapia. “Sometimes caterers do it, and some people have a huge family and choose to cook themselves,” Matey says.
In Cyprus, where Sakerum owner Stephanos Andreou lived until he was 19, memorial services are held at certain intervals after someone’s death. “Three days, nine days, 40 days, three months, six months, one year, and then every year after that,” he explains. The first 40 days are the most significant. During that time, relatives of the deceased wear black and men forgo shaving. Most Greek Cypriots, including Andreou, are Greek Orthodox, but there’s also a population of Islamic Turkish Cypriots.
“During this time we give koliva,” a boiled wheat preparation sweetened with sugar or honey and studded with anything from sesame seeds and ground walnuts to pomegranate seeds, he says. “It symbolizes life.”
But immediately after a funeral in the city of Nicosia, where Andreou is from, the family of the deceased will put out a spread of wine, halloumi cheese, olives, and bread. “Each guest will pass the food from the relatives and say, ‘God forgive him.’ The dinner happens for three straight days as a part of supporting the family and being there with them.”
Most of Venezuela, where Chef Enrique Limardo is from, is Roman Catholic. Limardo first made a name for himself locally at Alma Cocina Latina in Baltimore and now he’s readying to open Seven Reasons on 14th Street NW. He explains that regardless of socio-economic class, Venezuelans welcome funeral guests with a simple chicken soup that has various names: chupe de pollo, hervido de gallina, and levanta muerto.
Otherwise, there’s a divide between how the South American country’s rich and poor observe someone’s passing. “Sometimes in the most poor neighborhoods, the people from ‘the barrio’ make a huge party that’s very fun and loud, with a lot of alcohol involved and a variety of Venezuelan traditional food items,” Limardo explains.
The festivities usually include a practice known as bailando al muerto, which translates to “dancing with the dead.” Limardo says boogying on the streets where the deceased lived invites the dead to “join the Gods in a fun way.”
Wealthier Venezuelans look down on the celebratory vibe, according to Limardo. “On the most high-up scale of the society, people are more attached to the Catholic religion,” he explains. Compared to a lengthy, days-long party, they typically attend a ceremony at a church before sharing in a meal of coffee, non-alcoholic drinks, and small bites like arepas, tequeños (fried cheese sticks), and the aforementioned chicken soup.
“For me, and from my point of view, I prefer the celebratory meaning,” Limardo concludes. “Just because everybody will die at a certain point. That will happen no matter what. The question is, ‘When?’”
Omar Masroor, the owner of Afghan Bistro and Bistro Aracosia, shares Limardo’s sense of inevitability when it comes to death. While it’s customary in Islamic cultures to bury the dead as quickly as possible, Masroor says when someone dies you should mourn for 40 days. “No partying, no listening to music,” he says. “If someone died two weeks ago and you’re seen in a nightclub, it’s not good. You have to mourn.”
At funerals Masroor attended in his home country, relatives served a sharbat-style drink combining rosewater and the “tears of the basil plant.” Sharbat is a chilled, refreshing beverage typically featuring flower petals or other botanicals. Adding the slimy seeds to the base gives the drink a unique texture. He also recalls eating halvah. The sweet, fudgy dessert made with semolina flour and flavored with nuts, rosewater, and cardamom is often handed out to the homeless in addition to mourners.
“I was taught in the West everyone runs away from death,” says Masroor. “In my family, and most households, we believe the moment you take your first breath you’re dying. It’s a cycle. Life life life life then death death death death. If you ask my father what life is, he’d say, ‘death in slow motion.’”