Of Shortbread and Cannibalism
Imagine a knock at the door and, when you answer, the caller hands you a package. It contains a wrapped packet of biscuits tied with a black ribbon. Instantly, you know there’s been a death, and this is your invitation to the funeral.
A Victorian Funeral Tradition
Funeral biscuits flourished as part of the elaborate panoply of the Victorian funeral. References to them are found in England and parts of North America. Surviving recipes are rare, which suggests they might have been very simple or an adaptation of something most cooks already knew how to make.
Those recipes or descriptions that do exist suggest a sweet similar to shortbread or a molasses cookie. More elegant households favored a lighter sponge similar to ladyfingers or Savoy biscuits. The shortbread style often bore a design such as an hourglass, heart, cross, skull, cupid or other symbolic image. The use of such stamps gives us a clue to the consistency of the dough in use.
The biscuits appeared at the funeral as an accompaniment to a restorative glass of sherry or port wine. Mourners or to those unable to attend received wrapped packages of biscuits. And, as mentioned above, they could also be used as an invitation.
Bakeries produced biscuits to order, especially for large funerals. Between two and six biscuits were bundled in waxed paper. Sometimes, this wrapping bore a design with the usual skulls, hearts, etc. since the Victorians were apparently Goths at heart. At other times, the paper displayed the death notice of the deceased, a poem, or a Bible verse (see an example here). Black wax or a black ribbon sealed the package. For this keepsake of the departed, presentation mattered.
Digression alert: There is an odd parallel with wedding cakes here. If you’re royal, cake mementos can persist down the centuries. For those craving a slice of Queen Victoria’s wedding cake, this article is for you.
You Are Who You Eat
The funeral biscuit tradition faded with the advent of professional funeral parlors and the maelstrom of the World Wars, but its roots run deep in history. There is a connection between these tidy little biscuits and the the idea of claiming an energetic connection to the deceased.
Prior to the oh-so-hygienic funeral parlor, family members awaited burial in the home–in the parlor, if the house had such a room. Relatives, friends, and neighbors visited to pay their respects. According to folk tradition, objects belonging to or placed around the dead absorbed some of their qualities, and it was possible for the living to gain those qualities by possessing or consuming them. The same kind of sympathetic magic appears in Game of Thrones, when Daenerys consumes the heart of a stallion so that her child will have the horse’s strength. In both cases, a tangible (edible) medium transmits the deceased’s qualities to the living.
Neolithic funerals involved the occasional bit of cannibalism (several examples have been found in southern Iberia). In Central Europe during the Middle Ages, household bakers made “corpse cakes” (sometimes shaped like gingerbread men) from dough risen on the body. Mourners consumed the cakes to absorb the deceased’s virtues. In similar fashion, in Wales and the West Country of England, sin-eaters (usually someone at the bottom of the social scale) consumed bread and salt left on the body, thus absorbing the dead man’s guilt. In some accounts, villagers beat the sin-eater afterward to punish those transgressions.
There is a long and winding connection between corpse cakes and the Victorians’ polite shortbread marked with a skull. Nevertheless, given the nineteenth-century appetite for heavy symbolism, it’s likely at least some understood and accepted that grim association.
I did make an attempt at recreating funeral biscuits. Because this entry is already getting long, I will detail that adventure in another post.
Frisby, Helen. Traditions of Death and Burial. Oxford, UK: Shire Publications, 2019.