Bread of Heaven?

Here’s something new and exciting I learned about this week: funeral biscuits. Well, when I say new and exciting, I mean that it’s something I’d never come across before, and the concept is a fascinating one.

I stumbled across a mention of “arval bread” in relation to biscuits either eaten at, or after a funeral (it was all a little vague)–or in some cases, given out beforehand as a sort of invitation–and, because I’m a nosey old soul, I had a poke around the internet to see what it could tell me.

Arval bread is, in fact, quite often a kind of biscuit, particularly associated with Yorkshire funeral customs in the 18th & 19th Centuries. The biscuits were small, usually flavoured with caraway or molasses, and wrapped in paper (sometimes printed with lines from a hymn or Psalm) and sealed with black wax. The specific recipes used varied wildly, even from town to town, as did the time & method of distribution. In some cases, the biscuits were more like small cakes; in others they resemble shortbread or oatcakes, stamped with cherubs, hearts, crosses or death-heads, and were served with a type of sweetened spiced (and occasionally “burned”) wine.  All the combinations, however, connect to ancient funeral practices found on the Continent.

The term “arval” appears to stem from the Nordic tradition of providing  “averil”, or “heir-ale” at a funeral, toasting the eldest male and heir to the household or title as he took possession of his inheritance.

In the Germany of the Middle Ages, there was a slightly different tradition: that of the “corpse cake”. Here, mourners would gather at the home of the deceased for the laying out of the body, and the traditional wake (which, of course, was once a vigil lasting the night before the funeral). Once the corpse had been washed and arranged, a dough was prepared and then placed on the linen-covered corpse’s chest and left to rise. It was believed that the dough would absorb some of the deceased’s qualities, which would in turn be passed on to the mourners when they ate the bread, recalling both the superstition of sin-eating, and the ritual of ceremonial cannabalism.

The tradition spread to the US with settlers: recipes from Dutch communities in the Hudson River Valley (a place with a reputation for the gothic, thanks to Washington Irving’s “Legend of Sleepy Hollow“) survive, and describe the preparation of “doot coekjes” or “death cookies”.

With the progression of the Victorian Age, funerals–like weddings–became a commercial enterprise, and just as wedding cakes were big business, so were funeral biscuits. However, unlike wedding cakes, the funeral biscuit began, appropriately, to die out, and “averils” became entire meals: funeral feasts and teas… which have, in turn, become the modern wakes we recognise today.

(The accompanying picture, by the way, is of funeral biscuits reproduced by Historic Faux Foods: a research project which aims to accurately reproduce historical foods & room settings for museums and other exhibitions). You can find bits on funeral biscuits here, here and here; as well as a fascinating blog post about funeral food, which goes on to talk about Southern funeral cooking, and which can be found here.

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