"Mourning Coffee" - A Sugar & Spice (and not-so-nice) History of Funeral Biscuits...
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 most, or all of, the 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 practicing this form of Endo-Cannibalism well into the 1960’s. 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 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 (typical!) 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 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 on the surface: 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 recently worked with Tasha Marks and Fi 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. Then 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 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.
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 anymore – 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 honoring the dead.
But 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 is a recipe – perhaps you’d like to try it for yourselves??