The Bizarre Connection between Food and Death
Updated: Jan 19, 2022
'Food' and 'Death'; two words we wouldn’t usually think of in the same sentence. But a quick look back at our history shows that the two were often connected.
Food has always been central to most cultural and religious events celebrated by many communities all around the world. Normally what comes to mind though, would be joyous celebrations; weddings, parties or religious festivities. But of course, another important aspect of any community is how it deals with death, and even here food is often involved. And it appears that the local scene was no different, even if most of these traditions have since died out.
Some of the earliest evidence for the use of food in funerary rites is to be found in the numerous catacombs dotted around the Maltese Islands. Among the most unusual features of these interconnected underground Roman cemeteries are the so-called 'agape tables'.
Normally located in the wide public areas of the catacombs, the agape tables resemble in appearance a combination of the reclining couch, or triclinium, that was commonly found in Roman dining rooms, together with a table, or stibadium, where the food would be laid. The major difference was that these agape tables were carved out of the solid rock, and were clearly meant for repeat usage within the catacombs. 
It is possible that these tables would have been used during the Parentalia, the Roman annual festival of the dead. During this festival, life came to a pause while families remembered their ancestors. This culminated in the last day, the Feralia, which saw food offerings such as grain and bread soaked in wine left next to family tombs. 
Agape tables were also likely used during the funeral itself. The concept of a wake to bid farewell to the deceased is something which has been lost in Malta, but the presence of the tables in the catacombs is the clearest evidence that it was a common occurrence during the Roman era.
In addition, the tables would almost certainly have been used for the refrigerium, a commemorative meal held on the day of burial, again on the ninth day after the funeral, and annually thereafter. By spending time at graves and dining with the dead, the Romans believed they could connect with their ancestors and honour those who had gone before them.
Early Christians continued the refrigerium ritual, at least until it was officially abolished by the Church at the Council of Trullo in 692 AD, in an attempt to curb excesses and abuses which by then seem to have become commonplace.
One of the more interesting ancient funerary rites was that of the 'kuċċija'. Today, this term refers to a tradition whereby on a child’s first birthday, they are presented with a number of items related to different professions, and the child’s future career is predicted depending on which item they pick up first.
However, a look at the dictionary Lexicon by the Maltese linguist Mikiel Anton Vassalli would suggest that 'quċċija' did not always have the same meaning attributed to it today. Vassalli gives instead the following meaning: “Tisjir bis-smida komuni ħafna fostna” - some kind of recipe using semolina. 
More recently, Professor Stanley Fiorini mentioned how he regularly came across this word while examining medieval manuscripts, particularly last wills from the time. One such document stated that it was the wish of the individual concerned that on the first night after his funeral "two tumoli of kuċċija would be given to the poor, as is customary”. Clearly, the 'kuċċija' was some kind of food that was distributed in churches following someone’s death, as suffrage for the deceased’s soul. 
The Maltese 18th-century historian Agius de Soldanis also mentions the 'kuċċija' in one of his works, referring to it as “wheat that had been boiled and blessed”. In truth, however, he was quoting the apostolic visitor Monsignor Pietro Dusina, who visited Malta in 1575 and claimed that in some Maltese churches, on the eve of All Souls’ Day, some people would take to the church "cooked wheat, with raisins, nuts, and almonds thrown in, shaped like a cross, and distribute it among those present in the church. They would eat this while reciting prayers for the soul of the deceased, for whom this coccia was being held". 
According to Agius de Soldanis, by the time he wrote his account nearly two hundred years later, this custom was no longer being practised, although the tradition had not been completely lost, as some people still used this recipe, and would serve the 'kuċċija' to relatives gathered to celebrate their child’s first birthday; probably the link to the 'quċċija' as we know it today. 
Traditionally, Maltese society observed a number of set rituals following the death of a loved one. There were the 'newwieħa', or paid female mourners, screaming and pulling at their hair; 'viżtu', where close family members of the deceased would wear black for several months; men did not shave for a fortnight; handles were removed from doors; mirrors were covered up.