The old gold fields town of Castlemaine in central Victoria is where I go to write. I stay in a bed-and-breakfast, always the same house, the same room. It’s a simple space with a desk, a bay window and a view of the well-kept garden beyond. Often there are other guests about, though I go to write, not talk, and so avoid mingling wherever possible. To claim this as an act of discipline would be dishonest; my natural shyness makes solitude more preference than virtue. I have found breakfast the only hazardous point of the day, for one long dining room table means conversation is unavoidable if eating times collide. They did today.
An elderly couple, about the age of my own parents I suspect, was already fussing about the automated coffee machine when I arrived. With hot water streaming into the pan beneath, they looked almost frightened by the multiple buttons, pushing everything, all at once, but with no success. ‘I can’t stop it!’ the woman kept saying, panic rising in her voice. ‘Good morning,’ I said as I walked in behind them; ‘Can I help you?’ I reached in past her shoulder and pushed the off-switch. ‘That should do it,’ I said. ‘Oh glory be!’ She looked more relieved than was really necessary.
‘Can I do that for you?’ I asked. ‘Coffee?’ ‘Oh yes please, just a little milk,’ said her husband, evidently shaken by this averted catastrophe. ‘I can make my tea,’ the woman said sheepishly; ‘I have my hot water now.’ She smiled without looking up. The man immediately extended his hand, his face marked by the deep lines of age and hardship. ‘I’m Reg, and this is Ellen,’ he said, smiling warmly. As we settled down at the table there was a moment of silence as they stirred their cups. ‘What brings you to Castlemaine,’ I finally asked, ‘Are you travelling?’ With that simple question, Reg unbottled.
‘Our granddaughter was killed in a car accident on Saturday.’ His eyes immediately filled with tears. ‘She was only eighteen. We were on holidays in Queensland when our daughter called to tell us. We flew straight down.’ His voice petered out. ‘They live on a farm just out here in Newstead,’ Ellen continued. ‘We stayed with them for the first two nights, but they need their space.’ Without looking up, Reg nodded while Ellen continued, ‘It’s all just too much. They’re just in shock really.’ I listened, meeting their eyes whenever they looked my way. It was all I could do. ‘I am so sorry,’ I kept saying.
As they talked — something they clearly needed to do — I heard more of this young woman and her aspirations, her mother and father and siblings, and of plans for the funeral this coming weekend. I heard, too, that Reg had worked for forty years at the Melbourne Wholesale Fruit and Vegetable Market and that they had lived in the same house in Richmond for all that time. Despite his rugged, road-map complexion, Reg was clearly the more expressive one. His chin quivered as he ate his cereal; tears formed at the corners of his eyes as he sipped his coffee; and he quietly wept as he waited for his scrambled eggs to arrive.
By contrast, Ellen shed no tears. She only held her husband’s hand and spoke softly of the pain she felt for her daughter. ‘How do you go on?’ she kept asking. This woman was clearly the working bee of the family, the one who for so long had kept everything together, managing, caring, hovering, doing. ‘We’ll go again today, just to do whatever we can,’ she offered.
We talked a little of what the day ahead would hold and of the little tasks that were required at a time like this. ‘Will you cook?’ I asked, though expecting the answer that came. ‘Oh good heavens, no!’ Ellen said with wide eyes, ‘you should see the food. The benches are just covered with it.’ She described in detail the unending arrival of gifts at the front door, all edible: casseroles, bread, cakes and scones, hams, boxes of fruit and eggs, and endless trays of lasagna. ‘It just keeps coming!’ Ellen was clearly overwhelmed by the love, overwhelmed by the volume, and just overwhelmed. ‘It makes me remember when my father died,’ she said, looking across at Reg. ‘It was just the same. My poor mother with four daughters left alone, but the food, it came from everywhere … just the same.’
As a minister of religion, death and the rituals that surround it are part of my ‘trade.’ To sit with people in the initial stages of grief, to guide them as gently as one can through the planning of funerals, memorials and wakes is surely one of the most challenging yet sustained privileges of what I do. Each occasion of loss is unique, every funeral service an experience of its own, but one thing I have noticed that flows from death to death: the food. In Ellen’s words, it’s just the same.
Why is it that the provision of food is our most instinctive response to another’s grief? Perhaps it’s tied to our lack of words: when you don’t know how to say it, cook it. Or is it that food is nurturing, the most natural expression of care? Perhaps, too, the gathering of food is our communal defiance of death and our claiming of life. Certainly when we provide food, we affirm the role of the feast, even in death, as our most fundamental expression of solidarity and togetherness.
Granted, food is an awkward thing at a wake. It seems almost crass to notice such a mundane provision, and yet without it there is no excuse to be together. It is both marginal and central at the same time. The Australian food writer Romy Ash reflects on this awkward role food plays in death. ‘Is it a betrayal to eat ravenously as you mourn?’ he asks. ‘I would say that yes, in a way it is, but it is a necessary betrayal. We must eat to live.’ Somehow in feasting together we hold death, we eat death and defy it; we claim life and gulp strength for the emptiness ahead.
While no funeral is easy, it’s the funeral of a child that is most galling. Even for one accustomed to the rituals of death — one who has learned to be measured in response to grief and is generally able to find the right tone and appropriate words — I find ‘measured’ such an elusive thing when the deceased is a child, especially one I have known personally. Oliver was one of those, just two years old when his life tragically ended. He had struggled for life since his hazardous birth and though his parents had expected this day to come, the sadness of those who grieve a dead child fills a room with such heaviness it is hard to breathe.
I will never forget the presence of Oliver’s older sister as the extended family gathered after the funeral: a small girl, five years old, moving about with a plate of cupcakes. They were little cakes she had made with her aunt, iced and decorated with brightly coloured smarties, green frogs (a favourite for Oliver) and sprinklings of hundreds and thousands. As this little girl stood below me holding up her plate of cupcakes, offering a taste of her own sadness and delight mixed together in the fluorescent icing, I understood afresh how important food is when we mourn.
An extract from Eating Heaven: Spirituality at the Table (Acorn Press, 2013)