Death Becomes Her: A Century of Mourning and Other Food-Death Rituals

October 29, 2014

 

After seeing the Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition called, “Death Becomes Her: A Century of Mourning Attire”, I started to think about death culture and how food fits into that. We know that each culture uses food symbolically in rituals, like the ancient Egyptian pharaohs  buried with food for the after-life, or the customs around what is served at wakes (Irish wake cakes) or funerals like being buried with the ham in England and fried chicken in the American South. I remember the best roast beef sandwich I ever had was at my Uncle Tom's funeral-- such succulent slow roasted beef seeping in its own juices--I feel somewhat blasphemous even describing this pleasure I felt on such a sad occasion, but that is clearly how life, death and food are intertwined.  

Flamenco woman in Seville

 

In Italy, much like in other cultures, food is integral and symbolic with each stage of life. Italians celebrate or remember the dead on Nov 1 (All Souls Day) where children receive gifts from dead ancestors and cookies called “Osso di Mortu" (bones of the dead).  I remember my grandmother would call pomegranate seeds "Denti di Morti" (teeth of the dead) and if that didn't scare the bazoo out of us enough, she put us to bed with ghost stories. My mother never let us forget that the hoot of an owl (bird of prey-carnivore but likes crabs and snails too) foretold  a death. One year we found a dead owl on our lawn, my mom was convinced it was a bad omen, but my sisters and I made it our family bird in defiance! I also remember begging all the neighbors in our palazzo in Italy to tell me their favorite ghost story and of course their favorite was the one they actually believed in--and by believing in them they made the stories even scarier to me! We ate, we drank, we scared the hell out of each other. Ah--I miss Italy.

Amphora and funerary urns in Pompeii, Naples

Tribute altar in my grandmother's palazzo in Grumo Nevano, Naples

 

It is also interesting how food and death customs differ from culture to culture. In my travels I found that in Italy it is not uncommon to have a display of bones, skins and blood of "saints" in their churches in reliquaries (as found in many Catholic countries) and in even more extreme displays such as the bodies in Palermo lining the Catacombs of Capuchin monks (which is one of the most fascinating places I have visited). Here preserved mummified  bodies are hanging in endless aisles in their period attire.

Body in Catacomb of Capuchin monks in Palermo, Sicily

 

The Castello Aragonese in Ischia is another perfectly creepy setting with an interesting death custom. It had a convent on the premises where dying nuns were placed on stone chairs with holes in the seats and as their bodies decomposed slowly, bodily fluids were collected in a special vase underneath the chair. Many were said to have starved themselves during a fasting ritual and later their bones were collected. This display was merely to show how unimportant the body was. Interestingly, I remember having one of the best Mortadella sandwiches outside the castle walls that housed these starving nuns. FYI, this castle also houses a nifty Torture Museum--ah the Catholics.

Chairs for Decomposing nuns in (As her body decomposed (slowly), body fluids were collected in a special vase). Aragonese Castle in  Ischia, in Italy

Me and my sister Tina sitting in the decomposing nun chairs in Araganese Castle in Ischia because we are weird that way

Fresh bread and Mortadella Sandwiches in Ischia before we went to the crypts

Ah, anything Catholic

 

With all their theatrical aesthetics the Italians would surely be offended by the popular Victorian pastime of picnicking in cemeteries. The Victorians were obsessed with death (you can see some costumes of this era in the Met exhibition) but who could blame them--it was all around them in brand new ways: the Industrial Revolution, poverty in the cities, Jack the Ripper, fear of being buried alive and Charles Dickens. Not sure how popular it is today, but it is acceptable in many places if you wish--I did when I spent the summer there for internship! A few friends and I dressed up as Jane Austen characters and brought a picnic basket to the exquisitely overgrown graveyards around the perimeter of London--some of the best were in Bath. Our bravado grew during that trip and we did the same in the Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris--sans attire but with plenty of wine! We did not experience any odd glances from the locals which is quite a feat because the French are always rolling les jeux at les Americans. I guess with such miscreants as Oscar Wilde and Jim Morrison buried there, they have seen worse than a few college girls drinking wine and eating brie among the dead.

 

In New York you can picnic in Mount Hope cemetery in Rochester and have cocktails in the catacombs at the Green Wood Cemetery. It is not as aesthetically jarring as the Capuchin  catacombs or the Nun's Chambers in Ischia but it will do. There is nothing like facing death with a cocktail? Anyone want to go?

“Death Becomes Her: A Century of Mourning Attire” runs through Feb. 1 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Fifth Avenue at 82nd Street, metmuseum.org. Friday Focus lecture, Women in Black: Fashioning Mourning in the 19th Century, on Friday, November 21, at 4:00 p.m

 

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