The Bizarre Connection between Food and Death

Updated: Feb 16

'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.

Agape Tables

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. [1]

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. [2]

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.