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  • Victorian Funeral Food Customs
  • Helen Frisby (bio)

On 1 July 1893, a funeral took place in the Shropshire town of Market Drayton. As was customary, mourners gathered at the deceased’s home before the funeral. We know what transpired because it happens that one of the mourners later told her friend, Gertrude Hope. Miss Hope belonged to the Folklore Society and subsequently published this account in the society’s journal:

The minister of the chapel where the deceased woman had been a regular attendant held a short service in the cottage before the coffin was removed. The lady, who gave me the particulars, arrived rather early, and found the bearers enjoying a good lunch in the only downstairs room. Shortly afterwards the coffin was brought down and was placed on two chairs in the centre of the room, and the mourners having gathered [End Page 221] round it the service proceeded. Directly the minister ended, the woman in charge of the arrangements poured out four glasses of wine and handed one to each bearer present across the coffin, with a biscuit called a “funeral biscuit”. . . . The biscuits were ordinary sponge fingers, usually called “sponge fingers” or “lady’s fingers.” They are, however, also known in the shops of Market Drayton as “funeral biscuits.” The minister, who had lately come from Pembrokeshire, remarked to my informant that he was sorry to see that pagan custom still observed. He had been able to put an end to it in the Pembrokeshire village where he had formerly been.

(Hope 292–93)

Miss Hope’s account raises several points to be discussed in this essay: the historicity—actual and perceived—of Victorian funeral food customs; the systematic misunderstanding of such customs by those recording them; and the psychosocial functions of funeral food customs generally.

The serving of alcohol at British funerals possesses long historical roots. Early records of English funeral hospitality customs, dating from the late Middle Ages, refer simply to “wine.” By the seventeenth century, household account books and undertakers’ bills specify the types of wine—sack, claret, and canary—regularly served at funerals. In 1719, Henri Misson noted of English funeral gatherings that “[b]efore they set out, and after they return, it is usual to present the guests with something to drink, either red or white wine, boil’d with sugar and Cinnamon, or some such Liquor” (91). By the Victorian period, “burnt wine,” “a dark-looking liquid, with a strongly aromatic smell, [which] consisted of ale spiced with cloves, nutmeg, ginger and mace” (Addy 124), featured prominently at funerals. As another Folklore correspondent noted, “[e]ven the poor had one bottle of port, of which everyone must taste” (Thompson 85).

Alongside alcoholic beverages, biscuits or cake (the words were often employed interchangeably) were frequently served at affluent funerals prior to the Victorian period. Most fashionable during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were the Naples, or Savoy variety, made with exotic ingredients such as almonds, rosewater, musk, and ambergris. Later, the recipes became simplified, as the custom percolated down the social scale; most commonly (in both senses of the word) consumed at Victorian working- class funerals were crispy sponge fingers or “coffins,” oatcake, and caraway shortcake. Special moulds were sometimes used (fig. 1), these moulds being reserved especially for the preparation of funeral biscuits.

Biscuits were also distributed by way of inviting, or “bidding,” guests to the funeral. In some districts, it was customary to bid everyone within a defined geographical area and considered rude to decline without pressing reason (Thompson 85). Pairs of biscuits were wrapped in paper, which [End Page 222] was printed with a black border and suitably lugubrious verses composed to remind the recipients in no uncertain terms of their own mortality. The packets were sealed with black wax, then tied with black ribbon. A bidder wearing mourning would knock on the door and give a packet of biscuits, announcing as they did so, “You are expected to attend John Smith’s burying tomorrow at three o’clock. We bury at [place]” (Brears 189). One such bidder was “Roundlegs,” assistant to George Pearce, confectioner of Sheffield, whose funeral biscuits were so famed locally that they...


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