Education & Etiquette

Funeral Food: What to Bring

It’s a cultural universal that food is associated with different rites, or life events. There is typically a meal offered to friends and family in conjunction with baptisms, graduations, weddings, and yes, funerals. The post-funeral meal is traditionally called the repast (sometimes spelled repass), and is a way for mourners to gather in solidarity and support one another over food and drink. In older times, feeding the mourners had the more practical function of fueling up travelers who might have a long journey home.


The culinary delicacies found at repasts are often comfort foods, that is foods high in starch and calories that have some sentimental value. Common comfort foods in the United States include pasta salads, pastas, fried items (e.g., fried chicken, chicken fried steak), breads, sandwiches, pies, cakes, and casseroles. The dishes high in calories and starch are said to help people cope emotionally, exactly what mourners need.

For different cultures there are often specific dishes that have become staples of their mourning tradition. Hard boiled eggs are often found at the seudat havara’ah, or Jewish repast. Mormon funeral potatoes is a dish that has gained popularity in such a way that they’re often found at events other than funerals.

Looking backwards into history, Americans were more accustomed to death because it was much more prevalent in their everyday life. The life expectancy was much lower than it is today (age 47 for men in 1900 versus 75 in 2000), medicine wasn’t nearly as advanced, and the infant mortality rate was much greater (100 deaths per 1,000 births in 1915 vs. 7 deaths per 1,000 births in 1997). Because a family never knew when a death would occur, funeral foods had to be made from year-round readily available ingredients. The Amish funeral pie, is essentially a raisin pie, made from something the Amish ladies could whip up in an instant when bad news came knocking on their front door. The Irish brought with them their tradition of a “wake cake” that funeral-goers could nosh on during an all-night vigil. The wake cake is essentially a dressed up version of a pound cake, made of simple ingredients that were sure to be on hand when one of their community died.

So, you might be asking: I’m going to a repast. What do I bring?casserole

The family will usually designate a friend to help organize the repast. Ask the point-person if there is anything specifically they want you to bring. If not, adhere to these guidelines:

♦Disposable trays or chafing dishes are best. The family doesn’t have to worry about getting dishes back to you. If you are using your own glassware make sure it’s marked so the family can get it back to you at a later time.

♦Food should be easy and uncomplicated to heat up.

♦The food should “keep” and make good leftovers. (There are always leftovers after a repast!)

♦Your dish should be relatively easy to serve (most repasts are self-serve buffet lines).

♦Think along the lines of uncover and it’s ready to go. Simplicity is the key!

If you’re unsure what dish to make, look at the comfort foods I’ve listed above, or look at one of these funeral cookbooks I’ve curated:

•Southern Sympathy Cookbook: Funeral Food with a Twist by Perre C. Magness.

•Food to Die For: A Book of Funeral Food, Tips and Tales From the Old City Cemetery, Lynchburg, Virginia by Jessica B. Ward

•Little Old Lady Recipes: Comfort Food and Kitchen Table Wisdom by Meg Favreau

Food to Die ForSouthern Sympathy CookbookLittle Old Lady Recipes




Composing an Obituary: The Basics


Writing an obituary can be a daunting task. It entails boiling a person’s entire life into a few short paragraphs, typically while the author is battling the raw emotions of a recent death. But there’s hope. While each newspaper may have a different stylistic approach, obituaries can be broken down into a basic formula.

Below is the breakdown you’ll need when trying to compose an obituary.

The basics to include are as follows (please note, you don’t have to include information from every bullet point):

♦Announcement sentence (e.g., John A. “Bud” Doe, age 87, of Daytona Beach, FL died Tuesday, April 23, 2019 at Orange Grove Hospice.)

♦Education (Schools attended, dates graduated)

♦Occupation (Include titles, awards won, etc.)

♦Memberships (Clubs, Organizations, Church affiliation. List any special offices held)

♦Other Interests (Sports, hobbies, other)


⊗Deceased Family Members


♦Service Information (Days, dates, and times of viewing, funeral/memorial service, burial, funeral lunch)

♦Memorial Contributions (i.e., “in lieu of flowers”)

♦Additional online information (e.g., messages of condolence may be sent to the family at


Additional tips:

♦Most newspapers charge by line. Financially, it sometimes makes sense to create two versions of the obituary. A shortened version for the print paper and a lengthier version for the funeral home’s website (typically, this web publishing cost is included in “professional services” and there isn’t an additional charge. If there is, it will be less expensive than a print newspaper.

♦Ask your funeral professional for help with composing the obituary.

♦Don’t wait. If you have an aging parent, spouse, relative ask them what they want said about their life. You don’t have to compose the entire text, but it helps to know what highlights they want included.

♦Photos are optional.


The Doldrums

(Originally published in Delaware Communion Magazine, January 2019)

Sailors of old—the ones who fought pirates with rum running through their veins—had a colloquialism for the windless, calm periods: the doldrums. Their masted vessels, sails luffing, stagnating in the water pushed by the whim of the tides.

To many of us that’s what this time of year feels like, the doldrums. The excitement—religious and commercial—of Christmas is over. We’ve already cast off those pesky New Year’s resolutions, and it’s a long way until the feast days of St. Valentine and St. Patrick (if one can even be bothered with such Hallmark holidays) or the biggie: Easter. There’s no wind. Our ship drifts as it appears there’s nothing stretching before us but cold and dark. A bear’s routine of crawling in a cave and sleeping until springtime starts to make sense. I mean, why bother?

winter-solsticeBut there’s hope. The wind will pick up and the doldrums will pass, for everything is cyclical. Our lives are supposed to consist of yin and yang (if you’ll permit me a Daoist reference), albeit the valleys can be a bit boring. The changing nature of our lives is affirmed in the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes 3, “To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven…” The author of Ecclesiastes is telling us that no matter what we’re doing now it will change and that’s natural. Our lives are in a constant state of flux, doldrums and all.

We’re born, we die. Ecclesiastes promises us there are times for those events. Birth and death are the bookends, so to speak. But in between is the process of growing, maturation, and aging, things Ecclesiastes 3 promises too. When my kids were babies we used products from a company called Summer Infant. It specializes in baby accoutrements (monitors, car seats, strollers and the like), and no you don’t have to be born a summer baby to use their swag. I believe the product name is meant to infer the parents are in the “summer” of their lives (careful research of the product website yielded no supporting data for my hypothesis). Things are “in bloom” in the parent’s lives as they are having offspring. And in that stage of life—summer—one typically has stabilized in other areas such as financially and professionally. To continue the seasonal parable, people enter the autumnal time of their life—sometimes called “the golden years” —where they retire, travel, pursue hobbies and volunteer endeavors and enjoy their grandchildren. Autumn turns to winter, and I’m reminded of the old Protestant prayer that opens many funerals, “Eternal Father, before whom all generations rise and fall…” The cycle continues as winter turns to spring and another generation rises.

Within the seasons stretching across our lives, we experience daily and yearly patterns.

Perhaps one of the most ingrained patterns is that of school. We’ve all gone to school and had the academic calendar pounded into our heads, so it probably won’t come as a surprise when I tell you I’ve been working for a decade and a half but as August wanes, I still think, “Back to school time,” and as Christmas approaches, I still think, “Christmas break.” Even though I don’t get a nice two week break like we did in school, I still think of that period of time surrounding the last two weeks of the year as just that: “Christmas break.” And as I watch my kids settle into their school routines all the sub-routines of school are re-visited. Scouting, fall is for football, baseball spring, all leading up to the day kids cherish the most: the last day of school.

Of course, many professions have cycles, or routines throughout the year. Accountants are beyond hectic during tax season, hoteliers are busy during the summer break when everyone is on vacation, retailers generate the lion’s share of revenue during the holiday season, and of course, clergy members follow their respective religious calendars. The Christian clergy having just finished up Advent and soon to be heading into Lent, culminating in Holy Week. It’s their version of tax season. No matter what business you’re in it all ebbs and flows. Sometimes it’s nice to re-charge and enjoy the downtimes though it seems like our connected world pushes us more and more to do and do and do. It’s OK not to be constantly doing; you need the yin for the yang.

Don’t let the doldrums of winter get you blue, in fact, enjoy the quite now while it lasts. The sails of your ship will fill once again; spring is right around the corner. To quote the French philosopher and writer Albert Camus, “In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer.” For now is the time to plant which you will pluck up later.5abdeaf52ea74_image

Behind the [Burial] Traditions (Part 2)

Ever wonder why certain things, that seemingly make no sense, are done? Sometimes, these rituals or actions just need historical context. The funeral profession is one that is so mired in (mostly religious) tradition that there are a lot of neat little vestiges from days of yore that we still do today. Here is installment two of Behind the [Burial] Traditions:

light-in-the-darkness-871x710The Wake: How the practice of showing up to a place to look at the recently departed begin? While there is no definitive data saying wakes started at this time and place, wakes have been recorded as far back as Roman times. After the remains were anointed, and the decedent laid out with their feet pointing toward the door, the family would gather at the bedside. Before modern medical technology, there was a real (and very legitimate) fear of being buried alive. Hence, family members and friends would hold a vigil for a prescribed amount of time to make the decedent was actually dead.

The Hebrew tradition of shemira is related to ancient tradition of the vigil. In the Jewish custom, a shomer (shomeret if female) guards the body until it is buried.

This fear of premature burial was so pervasive that the president of the Second Continental Congress, Henry Laurens, of South Carolina, ordered his body burned because he was terrified of being burial alive after his daughter almost met with that fate. This is the first recorded “cremation” in America. (I put quotations around cremation because it wasn’t a modern cremation in a retort, it was more akin to an open-air pyre).

The Colonial and Victorian fears of premature burial spawned a whole cottage industry of grave alarms designed to alert family and friends visiting gravesites of premature burials. Despite this semi-lucrative trade, there was never an officially recorded instance where a grave alarm alerted to a premature burial and saved a life.

Despite the advances in modern medicine negating the actual need for a wake, the tradition continues as a forum for the community to express condolences and friends to affirm the decedent has passed—an important step in the grieving process.

deathspoonPrayer Cards: Funeral/mourning gifts were a common custom in Colonial-era America and beyond. Common gifts given to the mourners who attended were gloves, scarves, rings, and spoons. The rings bore inscriptions typical to the time period (e.g. “Prepare for Death”) and were often handed from one generation to the next as family heirlooms. The spoons were called “monkey spoons” because of the curved hook on the handle end, and were often custom made for the event with funerary imagery or saints engraved in them.

The value of the gift corresponded to the deceased’s station in the community, the wealthier the person, the more extravagant the gift. The gift giving caused the cost of the funerals to soar, leaving some municipalities to issue limits, or do awfuneral spoon1ay with, the giving of gifts (except the pallbearers and clergy, they were still allowed to receive mourning gloves). But the tradition continues. Instead of a solid silver spoon, attendees of a funeral oftentimes leave with a prayer card or memorial folder as a keepsake of the event.

Stones on a Headstone: Have you ever been in a cemetery and seen small stones placed on the top of a monument (monument or marker are fancy undertaker synonyms for headstone)? There are many interpretations of this ancient Jewish custom including marking the grave to prevent priests from becoming ritually impure to creating a bond with the deceased. And while those reasons aren’t incorrect, there’s a more practical reason. Centuries ago when Jewish people were buried in the desert mourners would mound collected stones over the grave because there weren’t modern stone slabs to serve as monuments. That pile of stones was the remembrance, the “marker,” of that loved one.

The custom became, when family and friends would pass the grave, they would add to the monument to keep the person’s memory alive. If they didn’t continually build the stone mound the desert winds would eventually cover the monument. This tradition continues today when visiting family and friends place small stones on top of existing monuments when they visit. The practice has been extended beyond the Jewish faith, and visitors will often see these mounded stones in cemeteries of many different faiths today.

Day Is Done

This essay was first published in Southern Calls (Sept. 2017)


Day is Done

by: Todd Harra


It was a day  twelve weeks in the making. The sun was hoisting itself out of the Atlantic when I pointed the hearse toward the neoclassical bridge spanning the Potomac, Lincoln’s cenotaph at our back. Slate colored water rushed underneath the bridge’s arches, and the sprawling former estate of the Confederacy’s savior  unfolded across the rolling hills of Virginia.

I slowed while approaching the barricade, then lowered my window to allow a blast of February air into the cozy confines of the cabin. The guard on Memorial Avenue merely nodded.  He knew  what my business was today. Threading the hearse through the metal barrier, I continued toward the imposing entrance monolith, the middle niche bearing the seal of the United States. E pluribus unum.

Out of many, one.

I pulled into the designated area in front of the low slung administrative building. The drive would soon fill with professional  , all waiting for one of the thirty burial slots meted out during a normal business day. They’re drinking from a fire hose. Four hundred and fifty   vets die each day, not to mention the more recent conflicts.

“Wait here with the casket,” I instructed my colleague. He grunted, and settled into his phone, glad not to have to brave the cold .

Inside, a cheery administrator directed me toward the reserved lounge and I thanked her. There would be no need for that today. I paced the polished floors while mourners, bureaucrats, and liverymen bustled about until spying a familiar figure coming from the visitor’s lot.

“Is everything set?” Fran asked, her nervous personality heightened, not so much due to the surroundings but the situation. Here she stood on hallowed ground, not as kith and kin, but as informant. Neighbor at best.

I consulted my watch. “A few minutes more.”

At the appointed time, a cemetery representative escorted us down drives bearing the names of dead generals. The grave was nestled in the south-eastern part of the cemetery, near the Pentagon, the Air Force memorial glinting in the rear ground like giant blades of grass. An Old Guard casket team with florid cheeks waited in stillness.

Today there would be no staging area with waiting caisson. No caparisoned filly, boots turned backward in dangling stirrups, nervously prancing. No smart tattoo issued by a brass band. No color guard, flags luffing in the breeze. There wouldn’t be an escort platoon with bayonets pointed skyward and hobnails on asphalt. No, there wouldn’t be the pomp and circumstance, but today honor would be conferred.

A slight man in a collar and overcoat greeted Fran and I, his breath emerging as little puffs of smoke. “I’m Father Lopez, the chaplain. Are we all here?” He looked at the single car behind the hearse.

I opened the door, pulled the bier pin, and stepped away. The commanding sergeant issued a few sharp commands, and the casket team, in perfect unison, executed pulling the casket out and stepping it to the lowering device. Fran and I followed through rows of perfectly aligned white marble dies .

The team held the colors tautly over the casket as Father Lopez gave a brief but eloquent service. Twenty-one shots rang out and then the mournful notes of taps . The six men folded the flag smartly. Salutes were exchanged. T , leaving Fran clutching the folded flag, accepting words of condolence from an Arlington Lady.

We stood in the sunlight and biting cold for a time, staring at the casket suspended on straps. There was nothing to say. Finally, I asked, “Are you ready?” Fran took one last look, hooked her arm through mine. arlington

Every day I tell myself I’ve seen it all, until tomorrow rolls around. This man—a hero—was of modest rank, sergeant, but of ample valor. He earned a silver star for his courage in Vietnam. Whether by choice or by design, there were more undertakers than bereaved at his committal. But that didn’t matter. America recognized his sacrifice and stood in solidarity to commit his remains to the ground.

“Rest on embalmed and sainted dead, dear as the blood ye gave, no impious footsteps here shall tread on the herbage of your grave.”



Flowers at a Funeral

A card signed by Yoko Ono is attached to flowers sent to St. Bartholomew's Church on Park Ave. in Manhattan, the site of Walter Cronkite's funeral, Thursday, July 23, 2009 in New York. Cronkite died last Friday at his Manhattan home at age 92. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
A card signed by Yoko Ono is attached to flowers sent to St. Bartholomew’s Church on Park Ave. in Manhattan, the site of Walter Cronkite’s funeral, Thursday, July 23, 2009 in New York. Cronkite died last Friday at his Manhattan home at age 92. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Novelist Lynn Coady wrote, “Flowers are an easy, eloquent expression of love at a time when words can seem clumsy and inadequate.” And for this reason, funeral homes and churches are often filled with flowers on the day of a funeral service.

The tradition of flowers at a funeral service stems from the days when people would gather in homes around a body that may have laid there for several days. And, in the days before embalming, that meant people were walking into a home that smelled like, well, a decaying body. To stave off the odor, the family and friends would surround the body with the sweet smell of roses, gardenias, lilies, lilacs, and other fragrant flowers. Over time this tradition morphed into a sign of sympathy.
While flowers can be a wonderful sign of your sympathy and can be very meaningful to families who have lost a loved one, sending flowers aren’t always the best option.
So, what does this mean for you? Here are some questions to ask yourself as you learn the news of a loved one’s death.

Does their religion deem flowers appropriate?

1. Christians: Most Christian faiths (Protestant & Catholic) allow/encourage flowers. However some churches only allow so many flowers in the sanctuary; call the church ahead of sending.
2. Jewish: Flowers are not appropriate. They do not have flowers in the sanctuary or at the grave.
3. Muslim: Flowers are not appropriate. A small, living plant may be sent to the family home.
4. Buddhist: Flowers are not appropriate. Flowers play a significant role in Hindu funerals but are used much differently from those in Western funerals and sending or bringing them would be seen as rude.
What does the obituary say?
1. In Lieu Of: Some people have requested that instead of flowers, people make a donation to the deceased’s favorite organization or to research a particular disease/health risks. Most 59046177c984a5dc0034b2afb47d0054places will notify the family that a gift has been made in their loved ones name. So, don’t worry about the family not knowing you were thinking of them.

If they request no flowers, please do not send them. Sounds easy enough but it still happens. If there is a point blank request, it is rude to ignore it.

If you really, really want to send flowers even if a “in lieu of” has been given, consider sending a smaller arrangement that says something like, “We sent a donation to the Humane Society and wanted you to have these beautiful flowers to remember your Mom.”

2. If the obituary does not specify: In this case, you are more than welcome to send flowers! I even had one family request that flowers be sent because their mom just adored flowers.

Now that you’ve decided to send flowers, what’s next?
1. $$: Flowers can be pretty pricey, so find a florist who fits your budget. Talk to them, ask questions—they are professionals at flowers, so they can help you decide size, color, and vase/stand.
2. What kind? The immediate family purchases the casket spray or urn wreath. The family also often purchases the arrangement at the head and/or foot of the casket. Unless the family has reached out to the community to help fund “family flowers” please do not purcha
se these family flowers.

3. Where? This is really up to you. If you have a favorite florist, go for it! If you’re totally lost on which florist, consider contacting the funeral home to see who the family is using. You can call that florist, and unless specified, the florist will often arrange flowers that are in the same theme/color as the family flowers.

Usually the florist calls the funeral home to find out what day, time, and where the flowers need to be delivered.

When in doubt, call the church/gathering place or funeral home to ask questions about flowers. They can help guide your decisions to best fit the family in need. And always remember, flowers aren’t all you can send! For other ideas, check out this blog.

Navigating Sympathy Gifts

White flowers, spaghetti in a disposable tin, and chocolate chip cookies…each of these come to mind when thinking about things people send as sympathy gifts. When trying to figure out how to help those whose husband, child, grandparent, or mom has died, it is our instinct to turn to beauty and baking, thus flowers and food seem to be the staple gift for grief.

But sometimes it’s nice to think outside the box—though, I would never say that casseroles and flowers are a bad idea!

Last October, my spouse and I each lost a grandfather. It was a strange and sad month to be grieving both men. But, one day soon after both deaths had been announced on Facebook, we received the most amazing sympathy gift, a Blue Apron Box. Blue Apron is a meal delivery service. They give you the exact ingredients and an easy to follow recipe. This was something we desperately needed. It was healthy and really tasty, and it meant we didn’t have to go to the grocery store!!! That is a huge gift when you are grieving. A year later and we are still thankful for that thoughtful gift.


So, if you’re wondering what you should give or send to a grieving family, don’t be afraid to think outside the box! Here are some other ideas:

Re-Plantable Flowers
By sending a flower like hydrangeas or tulips that have not been cut, a family can replant your gift and then have a beautiful memory year after year as the flowers bloom.
Tree or Shrub and Memorial Stone
A family I was serving received several flowers and as we were loading them up to take them to the reception, we noticed a stone with a Celtic blessing. We thought it was pretty but couldn’t figure out what it was. In the hustle and bustle of three truckloads of flowers, the card was displaced from the stone. Turns out, someone bought and planted a tree in memory of the deceased. The stone was a keepsake to put at the foot of another tree, in a path, or in a garden. When we put two and two together, the family broke out in praise for such a thoughtful gift.
A quick Google will give you several options, a tree in a foreign rainforest, a plant in California, a sapling in your loved one’s favorite National Forest.

A couple of months ago, a college friend died and the first thing I did when I found out was look through all of my pictures with her. And, it occurred to me that her mom probably doesn’t have this picture of her daughter wearing chaps (backwards at that) riding a mechanical bull in the middle of West Texas. So, I printed it out and a few others. I have heard from other grieving parents that they truly cherish the collection of pictures that have been sent.

A Self-Care Gift
When you’re grieving, it’s hard to spend any time on yourself, and yet, that is a vital part of processing loss. Consider a self-care gift, something that organic-massagehelps the mind, body, and soul, like a massage, pedicure, or manicure. Or even a month of yoga classes would be great! But self-care isn’t just pampering, it can be tickets to the movies or tickets to a game. Or even an Amazon gift card to purchase or rent several movies! Self-care gifts can be anything that help bring relief to the constant worry that comes in grief.


House Care

Some people know each other well enough to say, “I’m coming over to clean your kitchen, walk the dog, wash the car, and do a load or two of dirty towels, bedding, or even cloths.” But for others, this could be awkward, so how about a gift certificate to a cleaning service?
For some people having things clean helps let them get to the hard part of dealing loss, and if the dishes are clean, that leaves extra time to talk to lawyers, close bank accounts, etc.

Lawn Care Service
Slawncarebucketimilar to house care, yards are a big energy zapper when trying to grieve and get things squared away after a death. If it’s warmer weather, mowing yards, pulling weeds, filling in mulch are things you can do or a lawn care service provider can do! If it’s deep winter, offering to clear the snow is a huge help! It might seem simple, but when you’re sad, your energy takes a while to replenish and slaving over a long driveway is daunting. Think about ways that you can help your friend through brightening their yard or making it easier to use.


For Children                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           bounce-bali-kidsChildren often get left out of the grief process because it seems too sad to even think about or it is too daunting to figure out how to help them, but they need friends to help them too! They might not appreciate groceries or the lawn being mowed, but they would appreciate care, love, and attention. It could be something as simple as a box of their favorite Pop-Tarts, a new video game, or you could get a gift certificate to the local trampoline gym. Help them find ways to make new memories that are not filled with confusion and the feeling of being left out. Don’t let the specific grief of children be overwhelming for you, instead, think about what they like and take the time to make it a special gift just for them.


Need more ideas? Etsy has several unique gifts for many types of situations that can be personalized.