Funeral Cookies

by MSO
A wrapper from a package of funeral cookies which tells who died.

Cookies wrapped up in funeral notices served as invitations to a funeral during Victorian and Colonial American times. Pitt River Museum.

Though the custom started in Great Britain, providing cookies, biscuits or ‘dead cakes’, as they were known in Great Britain, during funerals was quickly adopted throughout Europe and in the United States during Colonial times. These cookies or biscuits provided comfort and sustenance during a trying time and also served as a remembrance of the person who had died. They were, in a way, a secular communion – in the spirit of Christ’s Last Supper.

The practice is believed to have evolved from an earlier custom of hiring ‘sin-eaters’ during a funeral. A sin-eater was usually a man of poor means who was hired to sit before the casket and eat and drink food that was handed to him over the coffin. The belief at the time was that the sins of the deceased person would be ingested by the sin-eater as he ate the meal.

There were a variety of cookie recipes used. In Wales and surrounding areas a sponge cake like batter was used, Belgian people preferred a dark chocolate batter while Colonial Americans made traditional molasses cookies that were about the size of saucers. Often cookies were made with images of winged cherubs, hour glasses and even skulls – all traditional symbols of death.

In Great Britain, eager children often looked forward to a parent or grandparent’s return from a funeral as it meant they would find the coveted cookies in their pockets. Colonial Americans however, preferred to keep the cookies to alway remind them of the person who died.

As the tradition developed, bakers began marketing funeral cookies/biscuits in newspapers and in their stores and they were very competitive as sometimes hundreds of cookies would be needed for a single funeral. Needless to say, “made to order on the shortest notice” was a popular line in any bakery’s advertisement. Paper wrappers for the cookies were printed and included Bible verses, poetry and even the death notice of a person and were sealed with black wax. Often times family, or people they hired, would deliver these cookies, most included two cookies, wrapped with the death notice to people expected to attend the funeral.

Cookies were also given out during visitations and all guests who walked from the church to the place of burial were offered a cookie en route.

By the time of World War I, funeral cookies had become a tradition of the past, replaced by catered meals in church halls, funeral homes and restaurants.

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