Die-gestives? : The Weird and Wonderful World of Funeral Biscuits
Long before Jesus of Nazareth reputedly said the words, “Take, Eat: Do this in remembrance of me,” the passing of the flesh from this world into the next was already being memorialized with an edible ceremony or custom. Paleolithic humans, better known as ‘cave-men’, indulged in the ritual cannibalism of their dearly departed kinsmen. They were the first humans to attribute some higher meaning to death, and to ceremoniously prepare their dead. Part of these rites involved the consumption of the corpse to return their essence or spirit to the tribe. Sometimes this was done with only a representative portion of the flesh but often it involved the entire cadaver. Pieces of the body were apportioned to different members of the family or tribe to consume according to traditional cultural rules, and sometimes even the bones were macerated and devoured with honey. This is called Endo-Cannibalism and is the consumption of members of one’s own society. There are certain isolated tribes, such as the Korowai in Papua New Guinea, who were still practising this form of Endo-Cannibalism well into the 1960s. However, the practice did have deadly repercussions. It was discovered that many of the tribes’ people were suffering from a fatal disease believed by scientists to be related to their cannibalistic activities. It was called Kuru and was a variant of CJD or ‘Mad Cow Disease’. The spread of this disease only began to diminish when the practice of cannibalism decreased but there are still isolated pockets of cannibal activity taking place and I found a recent news item about it as I was researching for this article
So how did most humans move on from this grisly tradition to the delightful sounding custom of ‘funeral biscuits’? It seems that it’s not only Madonna who has the ability to adapt and transform; customs and rituals also need to move with the times and are subject to change with new influences and different zeitgeists.
Throughout The Middle Ages (c.1600) in Europe there was a tradition of consuming a ‘Corpse-Cake’ which was a symbolic version of the cannibalism previously described. After the body had been washed and wrapped in clean linen, the woman of the house would prepare some dough and leave it to rise on the chest of the cadaver, during the wake. The dough was believed to “absorb” the positive qualities of the deceased which would in turn be absorbed by the family once the dough was baked, shared and eaten. (This was repeated in many different cultures, sometimes by leaving other items such as tobacco on the body which would be pinched and ‘snuffed’ by the mourners.) But at some point this honourable act then became the tradition of “sin-eating” during the 17th and 18th centuries in England, Scotland and Wales. In an exact reversal of the corpse-cake custom, the food purposely left on, or near, the departed was now said to contain their sins. (Food may be placed directly onto the corpse, or into a Mazer Bowl such as this one from the British Museum)
In order for the loved one to be able to enter heaven, the job of consuming this ‘sin’ was not the family’s but a specific person who was paid a pittance for the privilege: the ‘Sin-Eater’. This was usually a reviled person from the very lowest echelon of social class; something like the Untouchables of India, or the people who enter the Big Brother house. They would live on the outskirts of the village in total solitude until a time when they were summoned to the coffin-side of the latest to depart, and asked to once again carry out their rather unusual vocation. After being given their measly amount of money for being a modern version of the Hebrew ‘scape-goat’, they were sometimes even beaten, kicked and spat on as they tried to escape the gathering, presumably taking the sins and various crumbs with them.
In true Victorian style there was a metamorphosis of all these initially gruesome customs into one which involved a lot more restraint and grace: The Funeral Biscuit. They were in part derived also from the Dutch tradition of doot coekjes or Death Cookies which were as large as saucers and were designed to be dipped into hot, spiced wine (Mmm – imagine the size of the wine-glass!) and they became Dead Cakes over in Colonial America. These probably seemed like a far more civilised option than beating the crap out of the local outcast.
Recipes differ from county to county: as well as the saucer sized death cookies of the Dutch, there were also biscuits which were soft and resembled ‘lady fingers’, ones which were spongy and round, and others which were harder like shortbread or oatcakes. Commonly they were flavoured with caraway seeds which, in herbology, are reputed to ward off evil and protect from illness and harm.
I worked with Tasha Marks and Fiona Russell of the food curiosity company Animal Vegetable Mineral during a stint at the very first British Biscuit Festival. They had opted to recreate a recipe by Peter Brears and had modified it by adding rosewater to the caraway. They made a batch of 200 (similar to what would have been required for a Victorian Funeral) and we gave them out to an unsuspecting public. The biscuits were so delicious we ran out prematurely.
It’s not surprising as they appeal to the eye as well as the stomach. Traditionally they tended to have motifs stamped into them, sometimes in the form of a heart to symbolize love for the departed, but also commonly there were skulls, cherubs and crosses in that dramatic, morbid style the Victorians relished. They’d be wrapped in white paper and sealed with a black wax stamp, and this gradually became a whole mourning poem with the details of the funeral and the Undertaker’s advertisements. They were handed out at the funeral to the mourners present to eat there or at home, and also sent to those who were too far away to attend the funeral, as a sort of death notice with a consolation prize.
The above is an example of a wrapper from the Pitt Rivers Museum and the accession book reads, ‘Paper wrapper used to contain biscuits given to a mourner at the funeral of Mrs Oliver, 7 Nov., 1828. Cleveland district, Yorkshire. Biscuits of special make were distributed to mourners, wrapped in paper envelopes sealed with black wax, at a recognized stage in the ceremony, together with wine. The biscuits were round & resembled sponge-cake.’ AVM opted for a beautiful postcard with a mourning verse and advert for their other interesting food curiosities – quite in keeping with the Undertakers’ enterprising skills in the days of yore.
Like all things, such as wedding cakes and hot-cross buns, the funeral biscuits became increasingly commercial and popular, but by the First World War they had died out (no pun intended…) The custom was replaced by our more familiar tradition of eating food after the funeral, at a gathering with the rest of the mourners. Perhaps we just got greedier and a single biscuit wasn’t enough any more – soon only little sausage rolls and bowls of crisps and mini quiche could fill the hole? Or perhaps after a war, when so many people had lost their lives, the general population stopped wanting to be reminded of their mortality. It wasn’t only Funeral Biscuits that waned in popularity at this time – eventually the grand Victorian Art of Mourning gave way to a more relaxed way of honouring the dead. However with a recent increase in the popularity of home-baking and vintage past-times having a renaissance, perhaps it’s high time we brought back the funeral biscuit..? Here are two very recent examples created by my friends Kate Mayfield and Jillian of Feather and Flask for their events.
7/7 – Ten Years On
This year I was more prepared than usual for the anniversary of 7/7 or The London Bombs. I had a whole blog post written out and ready to go – talking about the minutiae of working on mass fatality dead – until something happened on the tube last week that made me consider something else.
It was Friday morning, July 3rd (2015), and having not long returned from a lovely holiday in quiet, idyllic Croatia it was amazing how quickly I slid right back into the ‘jaded, harangued Londoner’ role. It was a typical early-morning commute on a packed tube and I was attempting to read a magazine – stupid since there’s never actually any room for the pages amongst the throng of passengers. Eventually, I was only a couple of stops away from work and the tube slowed at the platform. I was huffing and sweating and wondering what to put into my smoothie once I got to my office, when my boring reverie was interrupted by a scream which made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. There was a sudden panic in the carriage: confused whispers, eye contact, people forcing the doors open and hanging out of them to see what was going on…and all the time a young girl screaming ‘Help me!’ in way that I can only describe as pure animal terror. A woman with a clearer view of the platform was shrieking for someone to push the alarm and everyone scrabbled over each other to find it (why can you not find the alarm when you look for it? Normally I bang my head on it!) Eventually it was pushed, but still the bloodcurdling screaming continued until it faded into grateful, yet still panic-stricken, sobs.
The girl was not hurt too badly physically, but her leg had dropped down into the gap between the tube and platform and she had become wedged beneath the vehicle and completely trapped. The blood-curdling pleas for help were a result of her sheer terror at the thought that any second the train was going to start moving, dragging her along with it. That alone is a crippling thought.
As she was tended to, the train remained in station and I witnessed most commuters breathing sighs of relief. Books, magazines and phones were even lowered as strangers conversed with each other and tried to make light of the situation. But I didn’t feel relief: once the panicked numbness abated I was nauseous, I couldn’t breathe and I felt that embarrassing dull burning behind my sinuses and eyes which meant tears were coming. I leapt off the train and walked the rest of the way to work, shaking and crying, thankful that I had sunglasses on.
I knew exactly what was wrong with me and it wasn’t just about that poor girl. The tube in July? The heat? The panic? I had worked on the victims of the 7/7 bombings near enough exactly 10 years ago and being thrust into this freaky tube situation made me lose my shit(technical term.) Before I make it sound like I’m a walking ball of PTSD I do feel the need to say that in 10 years – 10 years – that’s never really happened to me before. I had just one similar experience where I cried secretly into my skull-covered notebook when I was studying Forensic Anthropology at Cranfield (which was then the Royal College of Military Science) because inevitably one of the modules was Mass Fatality Incidents and we studied 7/7. It was incredibly bizarre for me to see it from the other side: the diagrams and figures and standard operating procedure flow charts. (It was much more than that to me, as you can read in Hayley Campbell’s Buzzfeed piece). And then to watch footage of victims and their next of kin being interviewed as part of the class was all a bit too much: I hadn’t even watched it at the time of the attacks. Personalizing it was something new and overwhelming to me.
But it’s odd, this need to sort of ‘defend’ myself against the occasional emotional blip! Perhaps its because mortuary work and similar jobs create a belief that if it’s ‘what you signed up for’ then why should it ever be traumatic? I don’t really have the answer to that: some things will just get to you and you may not know it until much later. I did enjoy my work on 7/7 for complex reasons and I enjoyed meeting other APTs but it wasn’t exactly ‘easy’.
Working with the dead can be many things, even contradictory things, but it is never easy. It’s demanding yet rewarding, it’s intricate and unique yet also, often, mundane. It’s frustrating, challenging and enlightening, it’s fascinating and revolting, and in some ways it does feel as though it sets you apart from other people. When I began training as a mortuary technician I was thoroughly ecstatic having wanted the career for years, and yet I was also very disappointed in some things I had to encounter. I constantly felt up and down. My whole career was like an emotional Water Coaster or log flume which sped through horrible pools of ‘feelings’ that I’d never really had before and splashed me and my clothing in the most unwelcome manner. I wish someone had provided me with a cagoule! For example I’d carry out autopsies on babies day in-day out and whistle while I worked, thinking only of the next sample I needed to help take and the next figure I had to write down to get this important job done. Then one day I might be in a cafe, see a mother take her baby from a pram, and ball my eyes out much to the surprise of the perplexed friend sitting down next to me with a cappuccino.
But when you work with the dead you cannot cry for every single case you do – you’d be utterly useless! It’s a defence mechanism that works perfectly well until something just tells you ‘Ok, it’s time: now have a cry then get back to it’ like what happened to me on the tube last week. In the same way we all cannot cry for every massacre we see on TV and every murder we read in the news. For example, in the UK two young children a week die at the hands of someone who knows them but only a few of those deaths are reported. Those ‘chosen ones’ become a symbol, something to help focus our grief and horror in manageable bites and release it steadily so that we don’t go truly insane. They’re just the tip of the iceberg, the rest of the iceberg being the cases dealt with by those who work directly with the dead. My friend Lara is also an APT and we don’t sit around chatting about all the horrendous cases we’ve worked on; instead we develop gallows humour, talk about eye shadow and move on.
I blog about flippant topics mostly, I thoroughly enjoy my work, but that doesn’t mean that I disrespect the dead. So, this piece isn’t just about my memories of 7/7. It’s also about 9/11, the recent Tunisian beach massacre and every other horrendous thing that has happened orwill happen. It’s about every deceased patient I’ve ever worked on, every one of their family members and every person who ended up in a pot in my museum. It’s for all my friends who work in similar fields, and others with similar jobs who I don’t know.
It’s not much; just one symbolic gesture to encompass a world of grief. And then, like we always do, we can move on.