Few places kill the appetite quicker than a cemetery. The sight of appalled mourners sobbing hysterically when someone produces a sandwich instead of a bunch of flowers is enough to put anyone off a meal, however hungry they may be. Besides that, it’s tricky to focus on food when you’re surrounded by recently deceased, mouldering corpses. However, though the modern cemetery may be about as appetising as a public toilet, this was not always the case. For a time, friends and families used to put aside any sense of squeamishness and congregate to break bread in graveyards all over the world. It might seem strange, but cemeteries were once picnic hotspots.
The briefest of glances back into the 19th century reveals that we were, until relatively recently, willing to indulge in an array of weird habits. That being said, graveyard snacking certainly seems to be up there with the oddest of them. In America’s oldest and most historic cemeteries, a bit of digging reveals some amazing snapshots of past picnicking customs. Early photographs show lines of men and women heading happily to leafy burial grounds, heavy-laden baskets in tow, preparing for a perfectly innocent day out.
There are several reasons why 19th-century picnics were far more morbid than they are today. Though we now think of a picnic as the perfect excuse for a family-focused day in the sun, the realities of domestic life differed considerably for earlier American citizens. Rampant disease and poverty meant that mortality rates and life expectancy were considerably lower for everyone. Death was a part of daily life. Though tragic, this also meant that many people were used to the idea of mortality in a way that we aren't any longer.
Spending time in cemeteries was, for many, the only way to reconnect with loved ones who had passed before their time. Families would gather around the graves of children, parents, brothers and sisters, swapping stories and sharing food with one another away from the squalor and dirt of the inner city. Visiting cemeteries became, for many, one of the few opportunities for leisure available outside the rigmarole of the tortuous 19th century working week.
It wasn’t just the opportunity for relaxation that inspired visitors to flock to the cemetery. In an era before public parks, relatively verdant graveyards provided a chance to spend time away from the increasingly dirty, grey and polluted streets of the city centre. Graveyard picnicking’s popularity reached its zenith towards the end of the 19th century, coinciding with the move away from austere, traditional inner-city burial sites and towards beautifully decorated suburban settings. This made them even more of a draw for visitors who wanted to spend a few hours free from the confines of the newly sprawling cities.
The diet of the picnickers varied enormously depending on social class. Luxury portable items such as chocolate would only be available to a select few families who had the disposable income to afford such extravagance. For lay people, meals were far more restrained. Records from disgruntled graveyard officials, reporting on the mess left by crowds of rowdy diners, report that “cans of sardines and bottles of root beer” were commonly left strewn across the sites. In addition to other staples such as sandwiches, boiled sweets and fruit, it’s clear that a graveyard snacking was not short of flavour.
It was at the end of the 19th century that the fad of cemetery dining was most popular in America, and indeed in most industrial world cities. It is certainly not the only historical example of families using food as an excuse to spend time with departed loved ones. In Ancient Rome, for instance, an annual celebration known as the parentalia commemorated the spirits of deceased ancestors. The festival involved family members transporting a carefully prepared banquet to offer to the spirits of dead relatives, before themselves dining on wine and cakes around the tomb. Similarly, cultures across Asia regularly prepare food for the dead to this day, to be offered up as part of funeral festivities. A look back at our history reveals that the link between food and death is stronger than you might imagine.
Despite this long-established connection, the American obsession with graveyard dining began to wane at the start of the 20th century. With rapid medical advances making premature death a less significant threat and networks of new public parks sprouting across the country, families became far less concerned with sharing their leisure time with the dead. Before long, public opinion had shifted significantly enough that cemetery picnicking had gone from an accepted part of city life to a strange and morbid quirk of uncivilised citizens. For better or for worse, Americans had fallen out of love with funerary al fresco.
For all the attempts to detach death from dinner, even today there are still traces of our morbid foodie history. Though it has been mostly banned, some American cemeteries still allow picnickers to bring meals onto the premises. Away from the United States, cultures across the world still practise presenting food to departed ancestors as a key part of funeral celebrations. The importance of food in spirituality and religion cannot be underestimated. With the understanding of history and this undeniable link, it’s small wonder that we all once enjoyed our picnics in the company of our dearly departed.