The Pitt Rivers Museum houses Oxford University’s anthropology and archaeology collection. There are many death related objects in their collection including mourning jewelry and clothing, memorial items, funeral accessories and even a couple of food related items.
In many parts of England, Europe and even the United States, a form of funeral biscuit or mourning biscuit was offered to funeral invitees and attendants, primarily as souvenirs. In future posts we will be examining some of these more closely, as well as recreating some recipes. However today, we are focusing on a particular artifact from the Pitt Rivers Museum collection.
The artifact is described in the accession book or you may view it, in it’s entirety, in their Objects Catalog, as follows:
‘Paper wrapper used to contain biscuits given to a mourner at the funeral of Mrs Oliver, 7 Nov., 1828. Cleveland district, Yorkshire. Biscuits of special make were distributed to mourners, wrapped in paper envelopes sealed with black wax, at a recognized stage in the ceremony, together with wine. The biscuits were round & resembled sponge-cake. Female “servers” distributed the biscuits & wine & when the funeral procession was marshalled, walked immediately in front of the coffin. Formerly the “biscuits” were called Avril, arvil or arval bread (Arval = “succession ale” = inheritance feast among the Norsemen)’
As you can see in the picture above, the wrapper reads:
Biscuits for the funeral of Mrs Oliver, died November 7th 1828. Aged 52
Thee we adore, eternal Name,
And humbly own to thee,
How feeble is our mortal frame!
What dying worms we be.
Our waisting [sic, particularly unfortunate as it wraps a biscuit] lives grow shorter still
As days and months increase;
And every beating pulse we tell
Leaves but the number less
The year roll round and steals away,
The breath that first it gave;
Whate’er we do, where’er we be,
We’re travelling to the grave.
Prepared by T. Robinson, Surgeon, Settle.
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