The choicest of yummy food and quite a variety. An assortment of fruit. And the choicest of drinks ranging from the best wines, beer, champagne to milk and other beverages. All lovingly prepared and served or purchased and served. To whom? To those who have departed from the living world. The world over, offering food to those who are no longer in our midst or organising a feast in their honour or feeding a priest or some other deserving person in the name or memory of those who have died is s time honoured custom or tradition. But why is food offered to the dead? After all, in simplistic terms, a dead person’s soul no longer has any physical needs because it is no longer housed in a physical body, so why offer it food or make other living-world offerings to it?
Obara Meji, spiritualist, Ifa-Orisa practitioner, and metaphysics teacher provides an interesting insight into food offerings for spirits. Do spirits eat food like us?, Meji questions and answers: “Absolutely not, but everything is energy, and this is what binds them to us here in this material world, energy and matter. Therefore, it is the energy the food emits that the spirits absorb. The first meal of the day is always theirs, and the first share from a plate is always theirs.” In India and many other countries as well, it is a widespread daily practice to keep aside the first food item that is cooked for departed souls. Before starting the first meal of the day, each family member also keeps aside s portion for them from his or her plate or share. In fact, several ancient texts recommend offering the first ‘roti’ or whatever is cooked for the day to a cow, a crow, and a dog, the belief being that whatever is fed to them will ‘reach’ our ancestors and other spirits. Some people leave the first food cooked daily under a ‘peepal’ or a banyan or a banana tree as n offering for the spirits.
Even a quick glance at offerings for departed souls in different regions of the world makes it evident that food as an offering forms a central part of almost all ceremonies or observances connected with spirits. In a feature titled “Honoring the Dead By Feeding Them” in “Good”, Javier Cabral1 revealed some years ago that food is a vital component to Día de los Muertos. “Though the hugely popular Mexican holiday traditionally celebrated on November 2 has its roots in the pre-Hispanic ages—meaning way before the 1500s—things have only intensified with time in Mexico, as well as other Latin American countries and basically anywhere the Mexican diaspora can be found”, he wrote.
“I remember as a teenager slowly walking around the ornate altars and getting a kick out of seeing the type of foods that were offered to the spirits, since you can tell a lot about a person by what they eat or rather, ate. Not to mention that the food looked amazing and I kind of wanted to taste it, too. But what would happen if I actually took a bite? Would I be cursed with bad food for seven years?” It is believed that if you take a bite of any of the foods that are on the altar after Day of the Dead, the food has no flavor anymore because the spirit has already eaten it.
The Hungry Ghost Festival in most South East Asian countries, the Obon celebrations in Japan and periods dedicated to the dead elsewhere in the world all have their own unique customs. In India, at the holy town of Haridwar, immediately after a cremation, mourners usually traditionally head to a particular “halwai” or sweet shop to drink hot milk and partake of certain sweets in remembrance or as a tribute to the person who’s funeral pyre is still smouldering at the cremation ground. Also, the belief goes that what you’re eating/drinking at that time will serve as a final meal and ensure a full stomach as it were and “fuel” for the dead person’s soul as it journey’s to the other world.
Before passing away, many people specify what they want to be served in the afterlife. Here’s what, according to Cabrall, the mother of Maria de Jesus Monterrubio, co-founder of the iconic Guelaguetza restaurant in Los Angeles, USA, requested to be served in the afterlife before she passed away: a mug of hot atole blanco — an unsweetened hot milky beverage made with nixtamalised corn and water, a caldo blanco—plain turkey soup cooked in the style of her hometown with plenty of aromatic, licorice-flavored hoja santa herb—and a pile of freshly made corn tortillas.
My own mother left a long list of what she called “preferences” which included food items that were a part of her routine life, such as “mooli paranthas”, and food items with an exotic touch, such as “kheer” with saffron, cashew nuts, walnuts, almonds, pistachios, etc. I make it a point to prepare as many as possible of her preferences during Pitri Paksh, the fortnight when ancestors and spirits visit earth. In fact, most people I know prepare and offer what had been their favourite dishes to departed loved ones. Essentially, such food offering are an expression of love, caring and respect, a source of spiritual energy for spirits.
The food that is offered to spirits varies from family to family, and often there are traditional menus plus anything else that the spirits enjoyed eating when they were alive. Its very rare for people to neglect offering food to deceased loved ones. In a fascinating Internet forum discussion on food offerings for spirits, someone observed that if you leave a food offering, you will notice it deteriorate rapidly. “Food that normally takes 2 weeks before going bad, if given to a spirit you may see it going stale and molding in just 3 days if left out that long… I’ve had wandering spirits help themselves without asking and food I literally just bought started molding not 2 days later. If you leave out a beverage, if carbonated it will become flat sooner, if non-carbonated it will evaporate more rapidly as if disappearing on its own.”
James Duvalier, author and paranormal researcher notes that making food offerings is a universal theme. “Spirits do not have corporeal bodies as do living beings and therefore do not require food for sustenance, yet so many spiritual traditions require the feeding of the dead.” As Javier Cabral1 wrote, “Love isn’t the only thing that is believed to be eternal. Food is, too.” The connection between food and the dead seems to be as strong and vital as the connection between food and the living.