Joni Woolf: Funeral food for the body and soul

Published 2:51 pm Saturday, April 28, 2018

When anyone in the South uses the term “funeral food,” we generally know what they are talking about. One of our most enduring (and endearing) customs is the one attached to a death in the family of a loved one: we rush out to buy the ingredients for a cake or pie or casserole (casseroles are popular funeral food) and hurry home to prepare. If we are, sadly, one of those who has lost a loved one and is trying to deal with all the grief, anxiety and practical details of a funeral, we know that we have friends and loved ones who are busily preparing food for the occasion. We needn’t worry about food.
In a recently published book entitled “The Southern Sympathy Cookbook: Funeral Food With a Twist,” author Perre Coleman Magnan says “Anything made with love and good intention” is acceptable, though some things hold up better than others. Often the food that is prepared will not be eaten right away: it may be reheated (sometimes several times) or it may be served cold and therefore must be refrigerated until served. But those are practical matters that we learn to deal with when the moment arrives. And somehow get through those awful times that each of us must face, over and over, throughout our lives.
When my first husband died, I had made no plans for a meal following the service. When we arrived back at our home we discovered that while we were away, a friend who owned a barbecue restaurant had set up shop in my kitchen, and served barbecue sandwiches, Brunswick stew and slaw to the large crowd that gathered. Added to this were cakes, pies, casseroles, fruit and vegetable trays — and a wide assortment of drinks — tea, lemonade, beer and a variety of wines and other drink. Following my second husband’s funeral, which was held in Christ Church, Macon, a large downtown church that had a significant ministry to the homeless, we had an unusual luncheon. My husband had been director of the homeless ministry that was supported by a number of Macon churches, and those planning the luncheon knew that there would be a crowd of homeless people attending the service. So, they prepared lunches in brown bags, so that everyone could take a lunch home with them. In addition, there were sandwiches and finger foods and soft drinks (no alcohol) that we all enjoyed while we intermingled with this most unusual gathering of mourners. It was a day to remember.
Earlier this week, I drove down to Parrott, Georgia, with my friend Leila Case, to attend the memorial service for Rebecca Rutherford Alston, the mother of our publisher and editor, Beth Alston. She had lived 93 remarkable years and was being mourned and honored by a large gathering at Parrott United Methodist Church. We were invited for lunch afterward at Dawson Presbyterian Church, joining other friends and family, as the members of that lovely church welcomed us with what was surely a Southern “funeral food” banquet. There was baked ham, fried chicken, rice casserole, fresh cream-style corn, green beans, peas, salads, breads, and a dessert table that included a chocolate cake of several layers and a lemon pie like my mother used to make. (I chose the pie as I was preparing my plate: I wanted to be sure I got that specific dessert!) We were offered ice tea, sweet and unsweet, or water and were attended by a gracious and friendly group of churchwomen who did all this as if they had been doing it all their lives, and no doubt they have. For in the South, we learn early — whether it is a tragic too-early death, or the death of one who has lived a long and meaningful life, like Mrs. Alston — that this is a time when we show our love and support of those left behind. We are there for them, as they will be for our families in the time that is to come.
There are no forbidden foods when we find ourselves planning for such an occasion. You might even make Baked Ziti. I found a lovely, poignant story on the internet, written by a young man whose father was dying, too soon, of a heart attack. He tells about that last week of his father’s life, when he realizes his dad isn’t going to make it and he would need to call his boss to say he wouldn’t be back at work that week. He says “I excused myself from the swarming army of loved ones to make the call. As I talked I found a counter covered in recently delivered food. At the end of the conversation, I realized that I’d been digging my fingers into a banquet-sized tray of cold baked ziti, eating one noodle at a time for nearly the entire conversation. I didn’t think I was hungry. I didn’t think I should be hungry. But there it was — the dent I had made in it and the sense that I’d eaten something that I really, really needed. Over the next few days I ate that baked ziti for breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks in between. I don’t know if anyone else got any of it. But anytime someone who I know or love loses someone, that is the dish I’m inclined to make.” Above all, he says, it should be comforting, delicious and unconcerned with diet. Diets can come later. This is a time for baked ziti. Or whatever you think your friend or loved one will find that they can actually eat. And know that life goes on, as we pass on the kindness, from one generation to the next.

Joni Woolf, a writer and editor, now lives in Schley County, having moved from her home in Macon several years ago. Contact her at