Dancing with Death: A Short History of Funeral Feasts & Merry Wakes

By Romany Reagan

From lavish feasts to naked mock marriages, death has long been an excuse for a party, even in the Christian era. This tension between life and death, celebration and grief, is marked by communities in different ways through the ages, but one common theme throughout is the need to come together, to strengthen the bonds of the community as a whole when one of their number is lost.

It’s considered shamefully rude to laugh at a funeral, but if our love of gallows humour tells us anything, it’s that to fight this impulse is to fight the core of human nature. We are not a species who can dwell long on endings, we are a species of cycles; and funeral feasts are an important marker of community rebirth.

Throughout history, these death rites have included foods that carry symbolic meaning. The ritual of taking food in honour of the departed can represent the living celebrating the life of the dead and marking their passing—but it can also represent the dead themselves as hosts at a last grand feast. Whether the living are the hosts or the dead, the grandness of the feast has long been commensurate with the status of the deceased. Tradition plays an important part in what is served at funerals, and even though the history that gives meaning to some habits may be forgotten, the foods themselves persist. 

After the English Reformation, the ceremonial pomp and drama of the funeral service itself was reduced; and with this reduction the secular, socially regenerative aspects of the funeral ritual took on a more important role. The funeral rites began to focus on social healing and the re-establishing of bonds within the group after the loss of one of its members, all of which began to happen outside of a church context. 

Sometimes this strong need to provide a respectable and honourable sendoff could break a family. Historically, the largest item of expenditure at funerals was the food and drink served after the burial itself. Often this would account for as much as half the total funeral cost. Some celebration would take place at the most lowly of burials. “Funerals were commonly well attended, as London’s Lamentation makes clear. Even if the refreshment was only a ‘drinking’ it could be for a hundred or more people and often food was provided too. At the drinking following a gentlewoman’s funeral in Abingdon in 1641 literally gallons of sack, white wine, and claret were served, accompanied by 60 pounds of comfits (a type of sweet), 15 pounds of biscuits, and 40 dozen cakes, together with dried fruits, pears, pippins, quinces, plums, almonds, macaroons, marzipan, violet cake, and ‘green dried lettuce’.” (Gittings 158-159) It’s the ‘green dried lettuce’ that most intrigues me here…

In 1618, the Catholic Synod of Armagh expressed deep concern about the effects on inheritances of the provision of “excessive luxury in funeral banquets and in mourning dresses”, and on the circumstances of those further down the social scale who were copying such expenditure, stating that “to moderate this excess some remedy must anxiously be applied”. Writing in 1623, Sir Henry Bourgchier, 5th Earl of Bath, grimly stated that “three or four hundred horse and double as many on foot sometimes come to feast and riot it out for three or four days together at the charge of the dead or married couple and their friends, to their utter undoing forever”. (Lysaght 405) 

17th-century funeral invitation

While the ceremonial focus shifted from the Church service to the funeral feast, one interesting Christian element to make the jump from church to secular use was the idea of ceremonial tiny bread.

Wafer-sized communion hosts were known from perhaps the 8th century onward, this small size gaining popularity as the centuries progressed. The power ascribed to these hosts led people to desire them for magical purposes outside the Church. The Church didn’t like this idea at all, so people did what you would assume they’d do, they started to bake their own secular equivalent. “In England, the principal term for these secular hosts was ‘soul-cakes’. The soul-cake, like the host, was closely associated with matters of life and death. In practical terms, soul-cakes fill the same conceptual space as the communion host, with the difference that they were under the control of laypeople. The Church had frustrated people’s desire to get hold of and use the Eucharist for extra-ecclesiastical purposes, and so the soul-cake can be seen as a way of commandeering a parallel power in lay hands.” (Bayless 359-360)

The soul-cake is associated with ceremonies on All Hallows’ Eve, but these tiny breads share characteristics with other forms of secular ceremony as well: bride-cakes and 19th-century funeral biscuits. There is a conceptual link to be drawn between the idea of the communion wafer and the ‘sin-eating’ practice of consuming the sins of the recently deceased, but I’ll leave direct comparisons to theologians.

Sin-Eating

Sin-Eater, Creator: IgorIgorevich |Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Writing in 1892, folklorist Edwin Sidney Hartland describes the Sin-Eaters of Wales:

When a person died, the friends sent for the Sin-Eater of the district, who on his arrival placed a plate of salt on the breast of the defunct, and upon the salt a piece of bread. He then muttered an incantation over the bread, which he finally ate, thereby eating up all the sins of the deceased. This done, he received his fee of 2s. 6d., and vanished as quickly as possible from the general gaze; for, as it was believed that he really appropriated to his own use and behoof the sins of all those over whom he performed the above ceremony, he was utterly detested in the neighbourhood—regarded as a mere Pariah—as one irredeemably lost. (Harland 1892 147-148) 

This practice of the Sin-Eater becoming the town pariah is a rather harsh version of what in other regions developed into a rather pleasant custom. Harland notes that in ‘the Highlands of Bavaria’ widows would prepare what they called Leichen-nudeln, which he translates to ‘corpse-cakes’ but I prefer Google Translate’s interpretation

 

The body would be washed and prepared in the front room, then the dough for this ‘corpse-cake’ (or ‘dead body pasta’) was placed on the dead body, which was wrapped in a linen shroud. The dough was left there to rise, then baked for the funeral guests. The idea here was the opposite of sin-eating though, the belief was that the dough had taken to itself all the virtues of the departed, and when the deceased family and loved ones consumed the cakes, they took to themselves all the best bits of the one they had lost. 

In other parts of Britain, consuming the sins of the departed was a communal responsibility that didn’t single out any one person to bear the burden. Hartland writes in 1917 of this practice in various areas of England: 

Mrs Leather relates that a resident in the neighbourhood of Hay on attending the funeral of the sister of a farmer near Crasswall [Herefordshire], was to his surprise ‘invited to go upstairs to the room where the body was lying. He went with the brother and four bearers. At the bottom of the bed, at the foot of the coffin, was a little box, with a white cloth covering it. On it were placed a bottle of port wine, opened, and six glasses arranged round it. The glasses were filled, and my informant was asked to drink. This he refused, saying that he never took wine. ‘But you must drink, sir’, said the old farmer, ‘it is like the Sacrament. It is to kill the sins of my sister.’ With this may be compared Mr Addy’s statements about the custom and belief in Derbyshire: ‘At a funeral in Derbyshire wine is first offered to the bearers who carry the corpse. This custom is strictly maintained, the guests not receiving any wine until the funeral party has returned from church.’ He subsequently says, from the information of a farmer’s daughter formerly residing at Dronfield, Derbyshire: ‘When you drink wine at a funeral every drop that you drink is a sin which the deceased has committed. You thereby take away the dead man’s sins and bear them yourself.’

Wine or ale was given with what they called ‘burying biscuits’ in Yorkshire and Lincolnshire. Mulled ale and cold ale, both spiced, are described by Hartland as given at a Welsh funeral, shortly before starting for the churchyard; and they are said to have been given “amid the most profound silence, and like the grave”, and administered “just as the Lord’s Supper is administered, and almost with the same reverence. It is, I think, impossible to sever the drinking of a ritual drink from the eating of a ritual food on the occasion of a funeral.” (Hartland 1917 310) 

Funeral Biscuits

Funeral biscuits were a particularly strong tradition in England, the Netherlands, Germany, and the United States—in some places until the late 19th century. “Their exact composition varied according to location, but in England they were usually either a light sugared sponge biscuit, like a Savoy, Naples, or boudoir biscuit, or a shortbread, often with caraway seeds, and in the United States they were often sweetened with molasses. Decorated with hearts, the initials of the dead, and other suitable memorial symbols or wrapped in commemorative paper, they were sometimes not eaten but kept as mementos for many years.” (Goldstein 289) 

Writing in 1917, Hartland describes a mourning biscuit from 1828 that he has in is possession: 

“There lies before me now a piece of white paper in which has been folded up and sealed with black sealing-wax: a funeral biscuit. Upon it is printed, framed in black lines 5mm in thickness the following inscription: 

 

“This must be one of very few material relics of a custom once prevalent in Yorkshire and elsewhere of handing each mourner at a funeral a packet of cake or biscuit. Canon Atkinson, describing the custom in the North Riding, speaks of the cakes as ‘small round cakes of the crisp sponge description’. They were called ‘Avril-bread’. At Whitby, a correspondent of Notes and Queries says: ‘A round, flat, rather sweet sort of cake-biscuit is baked [he wrote in 1875] expressly for use at funerals, and made to order by more than one of the bakers of the town; it is white, slightly sprinkled with sugar, and a fine even texture within. One would think it not well adapted to be eaten with wine.’ (Hartland 1917 305-306)

The word avril is said to be derived from arval, heir-ale, the name of the feasts given by Icelandic heirs on succeeding property. 

“The practice in Upper Wensleydale, at Settle and at Sebergham, of wrapping the cake or biscuits in white paper was also followed on the Shropshire border. The cakes there were square, one for each invited guest, ‘neatly wrapped in white note-paper with a deep black edge, and well sealed at the ends with sealing-wax’. Miss Burne writes to me: ‘I clearly remember (as a small child) the oblong “funeral biscuits” wrapped in white paper sealed with black wax, distributed at the funeral of a great-uncle at Kingswinford in South Staffordshire, 1856. I watched my father unwrapping the little parcel he brought home from the ceremony.” (Hartland 1917 307)

This idea of taking the funeral consumable home to those not present was described in 1802 in Gentleman’s Magazine: “It hath long been the custom in Yorkshire to give a sort of light sweetened cake to those who attended funerals. This cake the guests put in their pocket or in their handkerchief, to carry home and share among the family. Besides this, they had given at the house of the deceased hot ale sweetened, and spices in it, and the same sort of cake in pieces. But, if at a funeral of the richer sort, instead of hot ale they had burnt wine and Savoy biscuits, and a paper with two Naples biscuits sealed up to carry home for their families. The paper in which these biscuits were sealed was printed on one side with a coffin, cross-bones, skulls, hacks, spades, hour-glass, ect.; but this custom is now, I think, left off, and they wrap them only in a sheet of clean writing-paper sealed with black wax’.” (Hartland 1917 307-308) 

Hartland longs for the days of crossbones and the hourglass when looking at the 1828 biscuit before him: “The specimen from Settle points to an intermediate stage, when, probably under the influence of the Evangelical Revival, the skulls and other emblems of mortality had given way to pious but vapid doggerel. Can anyone explain what is meant by ‘Prepared by T. Robinson, Surgeon, Settle’? One would have thought it would be rather the undertaker who would be thus advertised.” (Hartland 1917 308) 

From ‘pious vapid doggerel’ let’s move swiftly onto a very different kind of funeral feast: the Irish ‘merry wake’. 

The Irish Merry Wake

The religious tensions mentioned previously between Reformation stoicism and secular desire to honour the dead lavishly met in a gloves-off match in Ireland. And it was not just the Church who wanted people to tone things down a bit. “In 1638, the town council of Kilkenny—probably concerned about the potential for excessive drinking and disorder—specifically forbade the Mayor ‘to go to any wake to eat or drink, on pain of £10’.” (Lysaght 405) Though mourning usually is viewed as a sorrowful time, the Irish merry wake presented another aspect of the death ritual, and included music, dancing, games, tricks, riddles, and storytelling, as well as the consumption of alcohol and food. 

The Catholic church authorities continued to object to the provision of excessive hospitality at wakes throughout the 17th century. In 1660, the Synod of Tuam ordered that immoderate drinking and feasting at wakes should stop and suggested that the greater part of the money involved should be given to alms to the poor or be spent on Masses for the dead. Thereafter, clerical condemnation of wake hospitality seems to have focused particularly on the provision of alcoholic drink because of the risk of resulting drunken and ‘unchristian’ behaviour. These attempts by the Catholic Church authorities to rid wakes of alcoholic drink were clearly unsuccessful in many parts of the country. […] Clergy present at wakes were instructed ‘to ensure that death was uppermost in the minds of those who attended’. (Lysaght 405-406)

In a survey of county Kildare for the Dublin Philosophical Society in 1682, Thomas Monk notes the lavishness of wakes where “they have a table-spread and serv’d with the best that can be had at such a time and those present engage in eating, drinking, and revelling as if it was one of the feasts of Bacchus”. (Lysaght 407) Despite efforts by both Church and council, these bacchanals were held through the 18th and 19th century. In his A General and Statistical Survey of the County of Cork (1810) for The Royal Dublin Society, the Protestant clergyman Horatio Townsend, related that people’s attachment to the custom was so strong that they even attended the wakes of those who had died of an infectious disease. “Similar attitudes apparently obtained in parts of post-Reformation England, where the rite of post-burial drinking was maintained as the main communal event on the occasion of death, even during plague-time.” (Lysaght 411) But it wasn’t just this strong fidelity to drink that had the clergy gravely concerned by these ‘merry wakes’. There was an interesting mix of scandalous courtship involved in the proceedings. 

“Wake games, which had overt sexual connotations, were performed in the same space as the laid-out corpse, juxtaposing the finality of life with a period of sexual licence where mourners indulged in lewd and lascivious ‘amusements’. Many of these games were played by men and women enacting antediluvian ceremonies which included cross-dressing and nakedness, practices which persisted despite the advent of Christianity and the moral reforms that ensued.” (McCoy 1) 

Maria Edgeworth writes in 1810 of the common practice of holding merry wakes in a barn:

The wake took place in a barn or stable in the presence of the deceased—who was covered in a white sheet and laid out on a table—and pipes and tobacco are first distributed, and then, according to the ability of the deceased, cakes and ale, and sometimes whisky are dealt to the company—

Deal on, deal on, my merry men all, 

Deal on your cakes and your wine, 

For whatever is dealt at her funeral to-day

Shall be dealt tomorrow at mine. 

“After a fit of universal sorrow, and the comfort of a universal dram, the scandal of the neighbourhood, as in higher circles, occupies the company. The young lads and lasses romp with one another, and when the fathers and mothers are at last overcome with sleep and whiskey, the youth become more enterprising, and are frequently successful. It is said that more matches are made at wakes than at weddings.” (Lysaght 409-410) 

It was most often the kitchen table that was brought to the barn for the body to be laid out upon. And it was said that kitchen tables were made the length and breadth of a large man on purpose! “The prominence afforded to the deceased person during the wake also indicates that he or she was perceived as host of the occasion. The body was laid out in the most prominent position in the room or barn, generally in clothes provided beforehand by the deceased, the wake guests approached the deceased first of all on entering the wake house in order to pay their respects, and all aspects of the wake generally took place in his or her presence. The deceased’s association with the kitchen table is also, perhaps, suggestive to his or her role as host of the occasion and the provider of the hospitality at the wake event.” (Lysaght 419) And it was in close proximity to their dead host that the games of scandalous courtship would proceed: 

The principal characteristics of the ‘merry wake’ included the provision of alcoholic drink and the performance of wake games by men and women, some of which had strong sexual connotations—such as the ‘Bull and the Cow’, ‘Building the Ship’, and a game called ‘Drawing the Ship out of the Mud’ in which the males engaged in the game appeared naked before the wake audience, females as well as males, and the mock ‘marriages’ performed by a mock ‘priest’. That these games were clearly concerned, on a symbolic level, with the perpetuation of the life of the community, is further emphasised by the fact that they were engaged in why the young folk and that the organisation and ritual character of the ‘merry wake’ both allowed and enabled their performance. (Lysaght 419) 

The merry wake is described as a time for the young to be free of the constraints of society for one night, in a celebration of life of the community continuing after the death of the individual. After the first solemn rites and the common merry-making, the older folk would go home to sleep leaving the young and unmarried to revel the night away as they pleased. “It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the clergy vehemently objected to these wake activities on the ground of immorality and profanity; it is also not surprising that the vast majority of the population essentially ignored such efforts by the Catholic Church authorities to control licentious and obscene wake activities for a very long period of time, in view of their symbolic significance; and it is not difficult to accept that there was probably some truth in the saying that more matches were made at wakes than weddings.” (Lysaght 419-420) 

It is through these merry wakes we can see the older practices of celebration of the circle of life, of death and rebirth, that has an older claim upon human hearts than Christianity. There is something deeply pagan in these practices, harkening back to the cycles of the earth, not of sin and heaven or hell, but of death and life in a grand circle. Honouring the passing of a revered member of the community, while at the same time celebrating that its not your time quite yet. These practices celebrate the memory of the dead while consoling the living in an affirmation of life.

A detail from an 18th-century oil painting depiction of the Dance of Death, Wellcome Images, London

Sources and further reading…

Bayless, Martha, ‘The Long Life of Tiny Bread’, Folkore, 130:4, p352-372. 2019. Journal.

Carrick, T.W. ‘Scraps of English Folklore, XVIII’, Foklore, 40:3, p278-290, 1929. Journal.  

Goldstein, Darra (editor), The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets, (Oxford: Oxford University Press). 2015. Book. 

Hartland, Sidney E., ‘Avril-Bread’, Folklore, 28:3, p305-310, 1917. Journal. 

          ‘The Sin-Eater’, Folklore, 3:2, p145-157, 1892. Journal. 

Jupp, Peter C., Gittings, Clare, Death in England: An Illustrated History, (Manchester: Manchester University Press) 1999. Book. 

Lysaght, Patricia, ‘Hospitality at wakes and funerals in Ireland from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century: Some evidence from the written record’, Folklore, 114:3, p403-426. Journal. 

Marsden, F.H. ‘Some Notes on the Folklore of Upper Calderdale’, Folklore, 43:3, p249-272. 1932. Journal. 

McCoy, Narelle, ’The quick and the dead: Sexuality and the Irish merry wake’, Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies, 26:4, 2012. Journal. 

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