An Ice Cream Truck at the Funeral

Here’s my latest piece for Modern Loss, An Ice Cream Truck At The Funeral 

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Swedish Funeral Candy


During the mid-nineteenth century in Sweden hard sugar candies, typically in the form of a corpse and wrapped in black crepe paper with fringes became a popular funeral favor.

Offered to funeral attendees with wine prior to the service, these little candy corpses wrapped up in a black shroud soon became a Swedish custom.

According to Mats Bigert, “The wrapper was fringed, and the length and width of the fringes suggested the age of the deceased; long and thin would indicate the death of an old person.” Shorter, wider fringe would then be indicative of a child or younger individual.

The wrappers would sometimes be adorned with ornately patterned silver paper, pictures of cherubs, or the more somber choice of a silhouetted crucifix or graveside setting.



Verses, prayers and poems attached to the candies were also commonplace. They ran the gamut from such grim treasures as:

The dark, quiet abyss;
All our days will end like this.

To an odd, moralistic pep rally:

Death shall one day all us fetter.
Pray, repent, act and make better.
Consider, human, what you do.
You never know when life is through.


World War I and imposed sugar rationing proved to be the death knell for these funereal favors. Interestingly, I have found a few references to people now using the surviving candies as ornaments on Christmas trees, which I find strangely fitting.


Mats Bigert, Sweet Kiss of Death, Cabinet Magazine, Issue 49, Death, Spring 2013

Special thanks to author, Bess Lovejoy for the source info.

Image Sources:

Images 1-3 Begravnings Museum

Image 4 Vintage By Nina

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Dia De Los Muertos – Update on Part III


This year, especially, there seems to have been a big shift in how Halloween and Dia de Los Muertos are intersecting in both Mexico and the US. An exchange is happening like never before. I’m waiting until the dust settles…a little anyway. It is changing much of what I was planning to write about in this post, hence the delay.

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Dia De Los Muertos (Day of the Dead) – Welcoming the Dead – Part II

altar 1

Dia de Los Muertos is a period of days when the souls of the dead return to visit the living. It is really like a family reunion.

There has always been the understanding among families that the things we have in our lives we inherit from our ancestors: our homes, our furniture and household items, often the family business, our skills – our lives in a sense, are inherited from our ancestors, so we want very much to thank them and offer them the best.

When this feeling of good will is absent, any Mexican will tell you we love resorting to scare tactics. Mexican children are brought up on a steady diet of rice, beans and fear.

Countless versions of this story are told, but they generally go like this:

Once upon a time, there was a man who did not believe in the dead and made no preparations for his dead parents. He went off with his friends as usual, and set out for home when the ceremonies were ending. He noticed that there were many people following him, but they were all were the dead returning to the other world.

Among them were his mother and father who were returning empty-handed, with no offering, whereas all the other dead were laden down with their gifts. His own dead carried only a piece of broken pottery as an incense burner, so that they burned their hands. They were crying and very sad.

Then the man no longer doubted, that the dead returned; he rushed home to set out his offering, and called for food to be brought. But, shortly after he started to feel sick and fell ill. A little while later he suddenly died. The food which he had ordered for the offering to his dead parents, became the the food at his own funeral.*

The key elements of the celebration include cemetery vigils, the erection of home altars, the preparation of special sweets, the presentation of flowers, candles and food to the dead and the performance of ritualized begging.

Symbols and Icons

The ritualized begging is tied to one of Mexico’s most iconic objects, the sugar skull.

By the 1800s the wealthy were especially under pressure to give money, clothing and food to the poor when a family member died. It is in this context that the term, “a skull” – una calavera, was first used to signify funerary charity. The poor would go around the graveyards and approach funeral processions begging for “una calavera.” With regard to the calavera as donation, it is the poor who receive the contribution as they act as symbolic surrogates of the souls in purgatory.


A form of this tradition is still widely enacted each November, when families give gifts of “una calaveras” in the form of sugar skulls to all the children they know, as well as assorted dependents and close friends. Children still go through the act of ritual begging when visiting friends and relatives on November 1st, by asking for their, “calavera,” or as it becoming more the case their “Halloween” (but that will be addressed in Part III).

The other image most associated with Dia de Los Muertos emerged during the years following the end of the wars and just prior to the beginning of the Revolutionary period in 1910. Here, the image that would arguably define Mexican identity emerged, The Catrina.


José Guadalupe Posada was a Mexican artist who was known for his political art which frequently satirized the upper class.

His iconic etchings of skeletons dressed in upper class finery were intended as a satirical portrait of those Mexican natives who, Posada and many others felt were aspiring to adopt European aristocratic traditions in the pre-revolutionary era. This attitude of casting aside one’s culture, after centuries of incredible efforts to preserve it, was infuriating to many.

Altars and Offrendas

The altars are made and decorated to display the offrendas – the offerings or gifts to the dead. These can be as simple as a table, decorated with a few key items, to incredibly elaborate and massive multi-tiered altars constructed by special builders.

Common gifts may be clothing, food, toys, personal objects and photographs. The dead should be provided with a basket or a special cloth to carry back all the gifts they have received. Anything the person enjoyed while living, we give to them in death.

Flowers are an important component, especially these yellow-orange marigolds, which we call “cempasuchil” or “flowers of the dead,” as the dead are especially attracted by these and are able to follow the scent. Not only are the flowers placed on altars and graves in abundance, but paths of the flowers can be seen leading to a cemetery or into a house to help the dead find their way.


Along these lines, copal incense is very important. This is lit in homes and cemeteries to help ensure that the souls will not only find their way to their offerings at home but back to the cemetery. So, you can imagine during the days of the dead, the air is full with this beautiful, unforgettable scent of the incense, flowers and my favorite, food.


There was a friar in the 1600s whose favorite pastime seemed to be spying on the Indians and luckily for us, he kept records of everything he witnessed. One night he followed some Indians into a huaca, where they interred their dead and confronted them, telling them how foolish they were to offer all this food to the dead, and asked the Indian Lord why they did it. He answered:

“I know father, that the dead do not eat the meat, nor the bones, instead they place themselves above the food and suck out all its virtues and the substance that they need and leave behind what they don’t need. And if this is not so, why do you allow the Spaniards to place bread, wine and goats on graves in the churches?” **

On November 1st when we receive the children, everything is made just for them and is done in miniature. Small versions or portions are served on little plates. Any food made, like tamales, are done without containing anything spicy. If a child died before it was weaned or was too little to drink from a cup you will sometimes see milk in a bottle on the altar.

A lot of candies are put out, many of them in the shape of skulls, skeletons or coffins.

chocolate skelly

Pan de muerto – bread of the dead, is everywhere. Traditionally, it is made in the shape of a little grave mound with bones or made to look like a corpse, (pictured below are some I made last year). You can find pan de muerto everywhere, both inside and outside the cemeteries, they are in every panderia and even at Starbucks.


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After the souls depart, the food is enjoyed by friends and family – it is a time for visiting people or for hosting them.

Root vegetables, carrots and jicama are eaten a lot around this time as it is believed that these things which grew under the ground were nourished by the corpses and this is another way we can be closer to the dead.

The Reunion

On the afternoon of October 31st it is time to receive the angelitos. When the spirits of the children arrive, we imagine it as though they are coming out of school, happy and excited, all gathered to meet their loved ones.

The candles and incense is lit on the altars and people open the doors or go outside to receive them. Everyone sits near the altar and keeps them company.

The following day on November 1st, it is time for the adults to come and the same rituals are repeated. This is now a time for many to go to the cemetery to visit loved ones there.


Just outside the cemeteries, there are huge markets selling various flower arrangements, foods, toys and many things. The cemeteries are incredibly crowded and lively. Families carrying buckets of water up tall ladders to wash a grave, food vendors selling ice cream, children playing tag among the headstones or playing with toys right on top of a tomb.

Family pets are brought to visit, there are strolling musicians to serenade the dead, families having picnics and laughing – the love and joy shared with the dead during these days is something I wish everyone could experience.


Each town or region of Mexico has its own way of celebrating as a community as well.

In Iguala, the centerpiece of an altar is a rented coffin against a scenic arrangement and living tableaus featuring relatives of the deceased.

In Guanajuato, the streets are decorated with incredible flower pictures. Small bands in costume, often with traditional calavera make up, lead groups of people through the city singing songs of Mexico’s history and daily life. It is an interactive experience and the audience joins in on songs or playing various roles. In Zacatecas there is a huge carnival with rides and games with a two story Catrina presiding. At the entrance people picnic and watch movies surrounded by life size Catrinas.


Huaquechula is very unique in that families open their doors to welcome tourists into their homes – no one is turned away. The altars are a bit on the gaudy side. Everything is draped with white satin and all the altars have several of these statues of crying children on them.

In many places there are parades around the center of town. People dress up in traditional costume – the majority of people are in calavera make up, but I have seen an alarming number of clowns recently.


In Chinahuapan, there’s the Festival of Light and Life. Here visitors are led by torchlight on a procession through the nine levels of Aztec Hell.

The central days that most families observe are November 1st and 2nd – however, you can find some that observe this period from October 18th – November 30th.. There are certain days when specific things are done, for example on La Vigilia everyone works hard putting the finishing touches on the altars. Or, October 18th  where in some places it is a day dedicated to the memory of those who have died tragically, particularly by drowning or assassination.

As time goes on these practices diminish and of course, not everyone in Mexico takes part in Dia de Los Muertos. Like in the US, by November 3rd you will see many stores in Mexico are already decorated for Christmas. There is also the matter of the American Halloween and its ever increasing influence on Mexico’s tradition. More on this in Part III.


*Adapted from a story that appeared in The Skeleton at the Feast, Elizabeth Charmichael and Chloe Sayer

**English translation quoted from Death and the Idea of Mexico, Claudio Lomnitz

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Dia De Los Muertos (Day of the Dead): History – Part I


In recent years, all things Dia de Los Muertos have become increasingly popular. You can find Mexico’s iconic imagery everywhere — from toilet seats to tattoos and even used as a popular wedding theme.

Although I think its wonderful that cultures all over the world are not only embracing something inherently Mexican, but more importantly, some death positive imagery, there is also a great deal that is getting lost in translation. Most people recognize that Dia de Los Muertos is a communal occasion on which families honor their deceased relatives however, Mexico has a far more complex and important story to share about this sacred tradition surrounding death.

In order to understand and appreciate this long held observance, we need to delve a little into Mexico’s history. First, we must acknowledge the foundation laid by Aztecs and Mexican Indians who have demonstrated through archaeological and ethnographic evidence, that they possessed extremely complex ideas and practices about death and the dead. These are especially evident as you begin to explore their mythology and creation stories.


Before the Spaniards came along, the Indians were already observing a set of festival months, referred to as “The Little Feast of the Dead.” These involved ritual offerings to the dead and the God of Death as well as feasting. Aztecs and Mexican Indians have demonstrated through archaeological and ethnographic evidence, that they possessed extremely complex ideas and practices about death and the dead. These are evident as you begin to explore their mythology and creation stories.

Much has been written regarding the horrors of the Spanish conquest of Mexico. What we can extract from this period is the incredible tenacity the Indians exhibited when it came to maintaining their death rituals and relationships with their dead. Although the church gave the directive to eradicate the Indian’s “pagan” practices surrounding their day of the dead festivals under severe punishment and torture, in practice it didn’t go down like that. In reality, the local Friars were profiting off of the lavish offerings intended for the dead. Clothing, money, household goods and incredible amounts of food were all being taken by the church for personal use.

It seems as though this specific tie to their established traditions surrounding death infuriated the Spaniards. Perhaps because it was the one thing the church had not been able to control – try as they might.


As time went on the Spanish attacked with a renewed fervor by introducing burial in church graveyards, creating laws controlling and abolishing many funerary and mourning practices, created a grave tax and in the late 1700s issued a series of laws that included the following edict:
“The use of food and private banquets on burial days, during funerary commemorations or on the Days of the Dead is absolutely forbidden and reproved.”
Their goal?
“So that these abominations can be entirely uprooted.”

There is the incorrect belief held by many that Dia de Los Muertos is a “church created” or “Catholic holiday” – it existed long before the church came and continued to thrive, in spite of the church. As with many pagan holidays, Dia de Los Muertos was transplanted to All Soul’s Day and All Saints Day in an effort to “uproot” the “abominations.” Luckily, it didn’t work out as they had hoped, although you can certainly see the influence of these church mandated days in modern Dia de Los Muertos observances.


With this almost constant siege from outside sources specifically targeting the Mexican’s relationship with death; it becomes evident that this was something of immense importance to them, something that defined them and stirred their souls in a unique and important way. Mexico, for centuries has fought to maintain and cultivate this intimate relationship with death.

Octavio Paz, a Mexican writer and diplomat, describes the Mexican’s special relationship with death in his “Labyrinth of Solitude” as follows:

“To the inhabitant of New York, Paris or London death is a word that is never uttered because it burns the lips. The Mexican on the other hand, frequents it, mocks it, caresses it, sleeps with it, entertains it, it is one of his favorite playthings and his most enduring love. It is true that in his attitude there is perhaps the same fear that others also have, but at least he does not hide this fear nor does he hide death; he contemplates it face to face.”


In Part II I will cover the origins of the iconic imagery and symbols of Dia de Los Muertos – sugar skulls, La Catrina and what exactly happens on the days when the dead return and of course, a heavy emphasis on food.

In Part III I will examine the modern popularity of the holiday in contrast to the American Halloween and cultural appropriation.

If you can’t wait, here’s some essential reading on the subject from Dr. Andrew Chesnut for Atlas Obscura: Celebrating Life While There’s Still Time: Halloween Meets Mexico’s Days Of Death 

Image Sources

All images used are work of the author, unless otherwise noted.

Photo 2 by Damien Hirst

Photo 3 by Agustín Víctor Casasola, Mexico City, 1935


Manuel Aguilar-Moreno,  Handbook to Life in the Aztec World, 2007

Hugh Thomas, Conquest: Cortes, Montezuma, and the Fall of Old Mexico, 1995

Claudio Lomnitz, Death and the Idea of Mexico, 2008

Elizabeth Carmichael and Chloe Sayer, The Skeleton At The Feast, 1991

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This Is What The Deacon Died Of

Deacon Pratt memorial

The following post originally appeared on Strange Company and is shared here with permission from the author.

In 1889, an incredible display of food and death takes place in Lambertville, Pennsylvania:

The story of the queerest tribute to the dead on record comes from Lambertville, in Hunterdon County. Near that town lives Mrs. Elisha Pratt, widow of Deacon Pratt, who was famous as a farmer, a genial soul, and an ardent Methodist. He was particularly fond of tickling his appetite, and was deemed considerable of an epicure. His wife was an excellent cook, and her dinners were rare exhibitions of culinary skill for a rural neighbourhood. The deacon enjoyed nothing better than a houseful of clergymen around a table laden with tempting victuals. And Mrs. Pratt, who doted on the deacon, was in her element when preparing such a feast and helping entertain such goodly guests.

About a year ago a number of ministers were on their way to the camp-meeting at Ocean Grove. There were just a dozen of them. Deacon Pratt had them all stop over night at his farmhouse, and gave them a rousing dinner early in the evening. It was a dinner modeled on the New England plan, as Pratt came from Vermont, and so did his wife. There was everything conceivable to eat and plenty of reasonably hard cider to drink. The deacon was in the best of humour, and partook even more heartily than usual of the food. His wife, accustomed as she was to her husband’s large appetite, was astonished at the amount he consumed. and made a mental inventory of the various articles and the amount of each that he swallowed.

The next afternoon Deacon Elisha Pratt died of cholera morbus. The physician said the dinner knocked him out. The funeral was the largest the neighbourhood ever knew. Eight of the twelve clergymen present at the dinner acted as pall-hearers, and the other four officiated at the church and by the grave.

The widow was inconsolable for a while, and talked about the tribute she proposed having prepared in memory of her husband. Everybody supposed she was going to erect a handsome monument, and the makers of tombstones sent in bids. But they were all mistaken. Mrs. Pratt had in view the most remarkable and yet suggestive of memorials. She had the work done quietly in Philadelphia, and it required some weeks to finish it. When it arrived at the farm and some of the widow’s intimate friends were invited to call and see the tribute, they were at first astounded and then shocked, and finally they felt a disposition to laugh that was controlled with difficulty. On the table in the parlour stood a large glass case. On top of the case was a small arch, made of solid silver. Surmounting the arch was the figure in silver of an angel blowing a trumpet. Inside the arch and suspended from its centre was a tablet of white marble, on which were inscribed the following words in deep, black letters:


This, my friends, is where the story gets good. To read the rest of the piece, courtesy of Undine at one of my favorite blogs Strange Company: A walk on the weird side of history click here

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Modern Loss

7 Los Angelitos

Here’s a recent piece I wrote for the wonderful site, Modern Loss, on ten ways people have honored their dead with food.

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