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Apr 5, 2013 12:01 PM

Food at wakes

This week started with a phone call telling of the death of a distant family member, and right then I knew that baked ziti and Chicken Francese were in my immediate future. These two dishes make an appearance at every wake-break I attend, and this week was no exception. In addition, there was Chicken parm, penne alla vodka, cold cuts, rolls, green salad, potato salad, macaroni salad, cole slaw, mixed olives, and a lot of liquor. And rainbow cookies and coffee for dessert.
At the wake-break, I sat down with my plate of food next to my niece, and I was telling her that I didn’t see the Chicken Francese at first, only the parm, and almost fainted at the thought of no Francese. We agreed that a wake-break without ziti and Chicken Francese would be no way to honor the dead, who BTW, loved his baked ziti. So we started comparing some of the foods that we have had at other wakes – southern bbq at a wake where the family was from South Carolina, an Irish chicken curry and boiled bacon, cabbage and potatoes after the service for one of my aunts in London, curried goat and rice after a Jamaican co-worker’s service. This has left me very curious, and hungry -- what do you and yours typically eat around wakes and funerals?
ETA: I live on Long Island, NY.

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  1. In my home-community (NE North Carolina), it's deviled eggs, ham biscuits, cake (coconut, pound, chocolate...), and lots of iced tea. Sometimes fried chicken will make an appearance. Some dishes are delivered to the house, which the family shares with visitors. The church ladies also put together a lunch for the family on day of the funeral, with family very loosely/openly defined.

    27 Replies
    1. re: mpjmph

      I'm also in NE North Carolina; Many of the foods you listed are commonly seen at wakes in this state...To the OP, I've never been to a "wake break" where people gather for a meal between hours in which the body is viewed at the funeral home. That seems strange to me (no disrespect)

      Here, when someone passes away, you'll find many people showing up at your door with gifts of food for the family so that they don't have to cook with everything else they have to tend to (which is usually the time before burial when arrangements must be made). It is not expected for the family to feed visitors prior to the funeral (at least where I come from) but close family & friends visiting family prior to the funeral may be invited to partake of the foods dropped off.

      Once the funeral has taken place, a meal usually follows the service called a repass; I've never been to one in a restaurant because most Southerners either have it in the church fellowship hall (where the church members prepare it) or at a family members home (where it is a pot luck)
      You'll also find pork barbecue, grilled chicken or other meats, brunswick stew, potatoes & onions, cooked greens of some sort (collards, mixed greens, etc.), potato salad, cole slaw, mac & cheese...pretty much any Southern inspired dish may be found at a funeral repass.

      1. re: Cherylptw

        I've never seen a "wake break" (a new phrase to me but good description) at the funeral home itself; I'm not sure that was what the OP meant, since I too am on Long Island. You have visitation in the afternoon, then you usually go to a nearby restaurant until time for the evening session, at least in my experience. After a morning funeral Mass the next day, then if there is a crowd, it's usually something at home since that can last into the night. If it's just close family who have long drives to get home, then again a restaurant.

        I'm going to say I would be weirded out to have a buffet set up at the funeral home itself, even though most of the newer ones do seem to be designed in a catering hall motif, and for all I know have a built in dining area. Like they don't make enough money already!

        1. re: coll

          I thought it strange to be having a meal in a funeral home; I can't imagine my loved one laid out in the front of a room and a buffet set up at the back or in another room. Way to shut down an appetite! On another note; I'm used to a wake being a somber affair but within the last few months, I went with my BF to a couple of family members wakes and it was like a get together.

          The body was laid out in the front of the room and chairs were set up in rows...everyone was laughing, talking and mingling;they had a family video ovehead the casket with the deceased, it was like a party. It was weird for me.

          1. re: Cherylptw

            It seems to be changing rapidly around here. Lately people don't even have wakes, they just have a happy party a few months later when it's all settled down and people can make plans to get there. A celebration of life, I've heard it called. It's OK by me, I would prefer that for myself to tell the truth.
            Spend the money on food and drink, I say! It would be a mighty party, as they said in Ned Devine.

            1. re: coll

              "Happy party" - is this what they are calling memorial services now? I agree, wakes suck. I'd rather people have a mighty party as well. Love that movie!

              1. re: EM23

                One of my favorite movies of all times! If I'm feeling blue, I just have to throw the tape on, and I'm all warm and fuzzy again.

                They do call it A Celebration of Life officially. It's like, don't be sad, the person lived his life to the end of his time on earth, let's celebrate that at least. Here's the low down

            2. re: Cherylptw

              It was wierd for us as friends of the family, at first, too. But the service at the funeral home that we attended was held several weeks after the individual's death, so there was no casket there. I have no idea of what arrangements had been taken care of on that level. But the conversations around our salads, fried chicken, coffee (no booze at this one) and sandwiches were warm and fun. I met some relatives of the deceased I likely would not have met if we hadn't just been sitting around tables chowing down.

            3. re: coll

              Coll, the OP NEVER said anything about setting up food in the funeral home.....

              1. re: gingershelley

                I know, someone else did. I knew exactly what he meant.

                  1. re: EM23

                    Sorry I'll keep that in mind! (I am too, for what it's worth)

              2. re: coll

                Am I the only one who reads Janet Evanovitch's Stephanie Plum series? Grandma Mazur is always scoping out food at viewings. Of course that is in Trenton . . .

                1. re: KaimukiMan

                  Yes, I do read that series. And I love them all. They're worth a re-read.

                  In regards to the food - food is provided by church members after the funeral and the subsequent visit to the cemetery After the luncheon, all leftovers are given to the family members to take home. My very devote Catholic Mother had provided food for many years and had stated that when her time came, "she, by God, had better get a lot of food". There was a lot of food - lots of casseroles, salads, small sandwiches, cookies, punch, cake and coffee. All I wanted at that point was a drink, but I digress.

                2. re: coll

                  My grandmother passed away a few days before Christmas several years ago. We were pressed to pull everything together before the holiday, plus she lived in a very small town and was one of the last of her generation in the town. We ended up scheduling lunch in the church fellowship hall at noon, followed by visitation at 2pm, and the funeral service at 3pm. It was actually kind of nice to have everything in one place, at one time, and now that has become the standard practice in town.

                  The lunch was lovely, with the usual ham, deviled eggs, and pie. The only hitch was the shortage of unsweetened tea - no one in my family drinks sweetened tea, and the church ladies were completely caught off guard when we quickly drained the unsweetened pitcher and switch to water.

                  1. re: coll

                    I've been to a couple of wakes in Chicago suburbs that had a very light buffet set up in another room. These were long wakes. I think it was meant as a place for close friends and family members, who would be there for hours and hours, to get away for a bit and get some nourishment.

                  2. re: Cherylptw

                    <To the OP, I've never been to a "wake break" where people gather for a meal between hours in which the body is viewed at the funeral home. That seems strange to me (no disrespect)>
                    No disrespect taken. We call it the "wake break" - we have to kill three hours somehow, so we eat. It’s a chance for extended family and friends to spend some downtime away from the funeral home in between the afternoon and evening wake. This wake was held at a funeral home about an hour from my house, so driving back home during the break, in rush hour traffic, on the Long Island Distressway, did not make any sense. The alternative would have been to go to a restaurant, but there were 20+ of us. So we always end up back at the home of one of the family members, eating catered food and food that has been dropped off by friends/ family.

                    1. re: EM23

                      Ah, as I thought. No one is eating in the funeral home...

                      You were just simply asking what others do/eat/bring for post-funereal get-together's when someone passes.

                      Cool. We can stick to that - who brings what to the potluck, or is it catered (never in my experience)?

                      1. re: gingershelley

                        Actually, read this post above again. I've never experienced anything like it, but nothing surprises me these days.

                        "Florida Hound 2 days ago

                        Food at the funeral home... I went to my first "catered" memorial service at a local funeral home this weekend! The "parlor" was set up with tables, rather than rows of chairs, and a buffet was at the ready in the back of the room for after the service. There were chips in bowls on the tables, and people casually grabbed a chip here and there as the memorial service progressed. And after the service, all were invited to get in the buffet line for a wonderful spread of good quality cold cuts and salads. And then the family can go home and not have to worry about those "covered dishes" that loved ones bring in. I have been to several light meals in church fellowship halls after funerals in the church sanctuary, but this was a first at a funeral home. The staff said it is starting to catch on and they are doing a couple of them a month.

                        I think of the scene from "A Christmas Carol" where the brokers have heard that Scrooge died and compare notes as to whether they are going to his funeral. One businessperson bluntly says he will go only if they serve lunch."

                        And this "EM23 about 5 hours ago

                        Uh, I don't think I like this idea. The funeral home that hosted the wake gave the family catered cold cuts - that was a first! Sounds like this may be a new trend."

                        As I said I haven't had the pleasure yet. Yuck.

                        1. re: coll

                          I could see someone deciding to do this in certain circumstances.
                          EX: if the deceased lived in a nursing home and there was no family in the area. The extended family might find it their best solution since they don't know the area or have homes there or belong to a local church/synagogue/etc.

                          That said, it would feel rather odd to me.

                        2. re: gingershelley

                          Correct. No one eats at the funeral home. I don't like that idea at all, but perhaps the convenience factor makes it an attractive option for some. I just did a bit of googling and found this very interesting article about food service in funeral homes - it's worth a read.
                          One funeral home bakes cookies during visitations because the aroma is "comforting" for the attendees.

                          To answer your question GS, the food was ordered and delivered to the house from a local Italian-American restaurant. A few people brought some home-cooked dishes and bakery goods over, but it is not a potluck setup at all.

                          1. re: EM23

                            I am so weirded out that this is the new norm. Sorry but it seems like a money thing to me, taking advantage so to speak. You're supposed to be too upset to think about anything carnal.

                            1. re: coll

                              It is a money thing. Just as picking out the "right" coffin (ya know, some "protect" your loved one better than others - yeah, right!). Another article that I came across quoted a representative of a national association of funeral homes, or some such, and they said that it was indeed a way for funeral homes to generate additional revenue.

                            2. re: EM23

                              my Mermer was cremated i dont think this would have been comforting

                          2. re: EM23

                            We've always gone to the closest (to the funeral home's) relative's house, for the 'wake break'. I usually volunteer to be the one to leave a few minutes early to start heating food up.

                            1. re: jeanmarieok

                              Yes! Any chance to leave the wake early and fire up the sternos.

                          3. re: Cherylptw

                            I think "wake-break" means 'breaking of the wake" - as in, we stop having viewing/funeral, and stop to visit and take some refreshment. Perhaps just a cute-speak local expression for 'reception' or come on over to grandma's for some food after grandpa's funeral?

                            1. re: gingershelley

                              I get it; the wording is like breakfast, breaking the fast from the night before....

                        3. It's just not the same living in a big city. I show up at the house with a pound cake and especially younger survivors don't understand why I brought it.

                          The last few times I've done it, I just did a really good loaf of homemade bread. I try not to make things that take refrigeration unless I know, for instance, that they really like one of my potato salads, or such. I also try not to bring something that leaves debris, like chicken wings. Depending on the age apt to be there, I tend to go to softer foods and un-spicy, like chicken and rice if I know there's definitely going to be an actual meal and not just a procession of people nibbling and snacking. Nothing wrong with that, but it just changes the offerings.

                          9 Replies
                          1. re: lemons

                            I presume you have seen the "pound cake" video? This is not about how to make a pound cake.


                            1. re: KaimukiMan

                              Love this video.

                              And you can MAKE this pound cake. It's the shopping that has her upset...!

                            2. re: lemons

                              Keep bringing that pound cake. Or bread!

                              The younger survivors may not understand it, but you never know who you will touch and help and inspire to carry the tradition on.

                              1. re: lemons

                                Keep bringing to pound cake. When my grandfather died, I couldn't bring myself to eat for two days. The first thing I had any taste for was pound cake that a neighbor brought to my grandmother's house. It was simple, sweet, and made with love. Exactly what I needed.

                                1. re: mpjmph

                                  At my Grandfathers house the best basket was the one that someone brought over that had paper plates and stuff,toliet paper, pound cake and tea.

                                  1. re: girloftheworld

                                    Toilet paper and pound cake. I mean, I understand how all those things could come in handy. But it just struck me. YMMV.

                                    1. re: girloftheworld

                                      The pound cake was the first thing I ate, but the most touching gift was a box of 2 liter soft drinks from the owner of the only grocery store in town. Our jaws about hit the floor when he showed up with those drinks. Then we offered him a piece of cake.

                                      1. re: girloftheworld

                                        The toilet paper. That is fantastic. Absolutely fantastic.

                                        I don't think my siblings, Mom, and I will soon forget that the septic system couldn't handle the traffic for the few days of family gathering when my dad died. It had never had to serve so many people. It made me think that if ever in the position to do so, I might just offer up my bathrooms to a neighbor who when family gathers for a funeral. Deli plates and baked goods are great, but boy could we have used more...capacity.

                                        1. re: debbiel

                                          I actually did that. It was a small gesture my neighbors never forgot.

                                  2. Hard boiled eggs, bagels, lox, whitefish and tuna salads, egg salad, the pepperidge farm cookie assortment, sliced tomatoes and onions, seltzer and shlivovitz.

                                    9 Replies
                                      1. re: EM23

                                        My Hungarian friend brings me a bottle of this when he visits. He advises me to take a shot first thing every morning to "chase away any bugs inside" and assures me that no germ will come near me all day if I do this :)

                                        1. re: sedimental

                                          My Mom has the same general theory.

                                          1. re: coll

                                            I think I want to be your mom when I grow up. :)

                                            1. re: tzurriz

                                              Thanks for the compliment; I'm turning into her myself, for better or worse. Every time I tell her I'm not feeling well, she advises a shot of whiskey, or a hot toddy. She's made it into her mid 80s this far so she might just have something up her sleeve!

                                          2. re: sedimental

                                            the "bugs" lol
                                            Reminds me of the time my dad slipped down the stairs at a hotel in Ireland. He was offered a whiskey by the chambermaid who saw him fall, a second one by the porter who helped him up, and a third by the hotel manager who took him to a doctor to be checked out. The doctor told him to have a whiskey too.

                                            1. re: EM23

                                              Well now I know where my Mom gets it. It's in her blood!

                                        2. re: tzurriz

                                          Coming from a Jewish family (even though I didn't grow up in New York) - sitting shiva was always associated with the idea of the "counter at Zabar's". Cured/smoked fish, fish spreads, and bagels stand out the most prominent in my memory.

                                          1. re: cresyd

                                            Hmm... As a midwestern daughter of a Brooklyn jew, we never mentioned the counter at Zabar's. But we always brought lox and bagel. Or smoked fish. Or a dairy plate. Or one year, my dad in a moment of brilliance - had catered chinese. The family by then was so sick of chicken and brisket and fish - they were thrilled!

                                        3. For 3 days after a Lao person dies, everyone congregates at the house to play cards, trade stories, and generally keep the family busy while the funeral is planned. Party food like papaya salad with grilled chicken, sticky rice, and laap are served buffet style, prepared by older women close to the family. My sisters and I were in charge last year when my gram died and we didn't really know about all of this, so we served pasta, cakes, fruit and salad the first day. Our aunts took over after that... I think the thought is that you should serve food that the deceased would like.

                                          2 Replies
                                          1. re: sarinaL

                                            Lovely tradition. Your menu would have fit right in at my family's wake-break.

                                          2. Hi EM,

                                            In my (very) early childhood, I can remember my mom bringing salads to people who were sitting shiva (garden salads, veggie trays, sometimes tuna).

                                            My dad's side calls it a "Mercy Meal," held after the funeral. Sometimes these are simple affairs, with cold cuts, salads, cakes, coffee, at the relative's home. Sometimes people will have it in a room in a restaurant. When we've had the latter, we have them at small, family-style Italian restaurants that have rooms dedicated to mercy meals, showers, etc. I'm in Northeastern MA, btw.

                                            1 Reply
                                            1. re: pinehurst

                                              Hi Pine,
                                              My family also does a restaurant meal after the funeral, and usually in an Italian restaurant too. I have never heard the term "mercy meal" - interesting!