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Feeding the Dead

Zubin D’souza

While most of the civilised world gears up for Halloween with slasher films and horror themed decorations, there are many who have forgotten the true significance of this season.

Since the very ancient times, civilisations believed that during this period the gates to the underworld were opened briefly and allowed souls to travel into the world of the living.

Ghosts or spirits were not feared or reviled; their presence was very much looked forward to.

Sometimes people believed that the souls of their ancestors came to visit and gave them blessings or advice; others believed that the spirits carried along with them good luck and fortune. Not everyone thought of these as malevolent entities and they wanted these otherworldly phantasms to feel welcome.

Graves were cleaned and decorated, and some would even set up elaborate altars. No matter your geographical location, food was always a common feature across cultures.

The underlying theme no matter where this day was celebrated was for people to understand that there was nothing to fear from death; that it wasn’t the end but a gateway to something different. The dogmas predate organised religion and are part of what once was associated with pagan beliefs.

The Mexicans deserve credit for creating what has to be the most amazing festival that celebrates the return of the ancestral spirits.

The ‘Dia de Los Muertos’ or the Day of the Dead is an impressively spectacular and festive affair. The entire country is robed in an aura of celebration with floats, elaborate costumes and extraordinary altars that decorate individual homes. Even the smallest of pueblos could give major Halloween players a run for the enthusiasm and creativity.

On the altars, families write the names or place pictures of the members to honour those who have moved on from their earthly physical trappings and to ensure that they know that they are welcome into the homes when they return back
to Earth.

A specially crafted bread called ‘Pan de muerto’, painstakingly hewed confectionary skulls called ‘calaveras de azucar’, fruit and hot chocolate are placed on the altars to entice the presences back into what was formerly their homes.

The Italians being primarily Catholic in religious leanings celebrate two consecutive days. The first of November is All Saints Day to honour the saints and celebrate their lives and the second of November is All Souls Day where prayers and offerings are done for all the dearly departed so that they may find everlasting life beyond their mortal trappings.

Although Italians may have variations in traditional food depending on the region they hail from there are a couple of dishes that would grace most tables. Almost every family is expected to have on hand the Italian version of the bread of the dead called ‘Pane dei morti’. It is a cross between a bread and a cookie and is composed of crumbled biscuits blended with cinnamon, chocolate, sugar, raisins, eggs and flour.

‘Ceci con le costine’ a hearty chickpea and pork rib soup from Piedmont is also considered de rigueur as are ‘frutta martorana’ which are marzipan sweets shaped to look like fruits and vegetables and ‘ossa dei morti’ which are the almond enhanced cookies of the dead.

The Chinese have really elaborate rules when it comes to preparing a meal for one who has recently departed.

The meal items are chosen with care because of the symbolism attached.

A funerary meal would have an entire roasted pig, chicken, duck, a vegetarian dish called jai, rice, fruit tea and wine. These are placed on a table facing the coffin in an alignment that has been predicated through the centuries.

The roast pig represents eternity and favourable luck, the chicken is to exorcize evil spirits that may be lurking nearby; ducks are chosen for their ability to swim since the deceased has to cross three rivers to reach the afterlife.

The vegetarian dish or jai is chosen for its purity because meats contain blood which are considered unclean and in necessity of decontamination.

Rice is needed to help the spirit in its travels to the world beyond while tea and wine are symbols of a shared meal and are also used to invite visitors and fellow mourners into the home.

There are five varieties of fruits expected with the colours green, yellow, red, white and black represented. These colours correspond to the four directions while yellow represents the centre.

The Cambodians believe that the period around the Cambodian New Year is when the gates to hell are opened allowing spirits to cross over. Some spirits complete their terms in purgatory and move on to heaven while others only receive temporary reprieve and go back to endure harsher punishment.

The Cambodians pay respect to their ancestors spanning back to seven generations prior. Since there are several ghosts other than former family members thought to be active at this time, the Cambodians distract them by keeping out food offerings that keep them occupied and the family safe.

During ‘Shraddh’ which is the traditional Hindu 13-day mourning period following a death, several families prepare the favourite dishes of the deceased and feed it to the crows believing that the spirit would return back as a bird and taste the food.

The Melanesians of Papua New Guinea and the Wari of Brazil probably had the best feasts to honour their dead. In order to forge an everlasting bond with the deceased and to ensure that their spirits lived on within themselves, they prepared a huge feast and simply ate the dead person!

Now that is a rite that I would surely like to skip!

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