A cup of coffee and a roll with cheese, ham or salami: this is what our coffee table usually looks like. Alternated with a cup of tea for those who prefer it and preferably finished sweetly with coffee cakes – with or without pudding. But where does this ‘mourning meal’ come from? Marie Vandecaveye from Huis van Alijn and ceremony speaker Lieke Biesemans explain.
Although the coffee table is the most common mourning meal in our country today, the tradition has not been around for very long. “The custom actually only emerged in the 19th century, perhaps under the influence of the bourgeoisie who attempted to improve the manners of the people,” explains Marie Vandecaveye, researcher at the Ghent House of Alijn, the museum that houses our daily lives. maps rituals.
“Previously, they would normally go to a café after a funeral and a barrel of beer would be served. In the 20th century, everything had to be a bit more dignified and there was also a lot of taboo involved. Visible signs of mourning such as mourning clothes with a mourning veil, mourning jewelry and funeral processions during the funeral were phased out. The grief, the funeral and the meal afterwards had to become increasingly subdued.”
“A funeral is often during the week, at a time when work actually has to be done. It is a nice gesture that people take time off work for this, in exchange they are offered food. The simplicity of that meal confirms that life goes on. Food is a necessity of life. We sit together at the table and have to move on. At the same time, there is a lot of freedom to walk around and talk to each other. You can walk to another table and grab a pistolet there and meet more people and support each other. Maybe it also helps that it is a light meal because people are less hungry when they are sad.”
What does the standard mourning meal in our country look like?
Marie does not see much variation in the food and funeral offerings. “In Flanders, the coffee table is still included in the package at many funeral directors. There are regional differences in the composition, but the standard usually involves coffee, rolls or sandwiches with classic toppings such as ham, cheese and preparé, often also coffee cakes or a piece of pie or cake. Only in West Flanders are there some families who have the habit of serving hot food. This usually involves a three-course menu with classic dishes. Today we also see a tendency to take a more personal approach to farewells, for example with a meeting in a local café.”
Of course, coffee cannot be missing at a coffee table: this drink plays a prominent role at the gathering after a funeral. It is literally a bowl of comfort that can absorb the tears when the subdued part of the goodbye is over. “It is not a coincidence that coffee is served. It is a familiar drink that also evokes a feeling of conviviality and is often drunk when getting together. Something we can use at such a time. The caffeine also provides a physical boost after all the sadness of the funeral itself. The ceremony is often subdued, there is also room for other emotions on the coffee table: you can reminisce and even laugh sometimes.”
Personal interpretations of the coffee table
Nowadays, ceremony speaker Lieke Biesemans often sees more personal interpretations of that classic coffee table. During the farewell moments that she organizes, the classic formula of the funeral director is less often chosen. “I work with the family to find ways to bring back someone who is no longer there in everything we say, and this automatically includes food and drinks. Many people want to put on the menu what the deceased person liked to eat or was good at preparing, or something that has a personal story attached to it. Sometimes this happens in a local brasserie, or even with sandwiches in the garden.”
Sometimes we move heaven and earth to get the cake from that one baker that mama loved so much on the comfort food.
“Just because it’s personal doesn’t mean it has to be expensive,” she emphasizes. “There is no need to serve cava. Sometimes it is rye bread with cheese and a can of Cristal beer, which we served, for example, during a cherished moment for a father 17 years after his death. Or we move heaven and earth to get the cake from that one baker that mama loved so much on the comfort food. Sometimes we receive unique requests, such as a Mediterranean buffet with dishes to share where the tired fish pudding was served for dessert: classic yellow pudding in the shape of a fish decorated with mouse stubs. Quite a strange combination, but it was all gone. By the way, I rarely see frugal eaters during a funeral meal. You see that people benefit from eating together and being able to store energy again.”
These experiences teach the ceremony speaker that food is not only in your stomach, but also in your heart. “I find it strange that a standard meal is simply chosen at a time that is so personal. And often what you get isn’t even very tasty: the coffee is lukewarm and the sandwiches are soggy. The memories of what ends up on a plate, in a glass or bag are so strong that you can certainly take that with you when saying goodbye. Everyone has a dish that takes you straight back to the table with Mum, your girlfriend on a terrace or your father’s garden. I want to gently question the classic coffee table. It makes sense to feed ourselves on food that comforts us on a farewell day. I wish everyone to fill their bellies and hearts with food that helps us meet the person we miss again.”
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