We are so pleased to share this contribution from Alison Atkin on Nourishing Death. Alison is a PhD candidate at the University of Sheffield, currently researching new ways to identify episodes of mass mortality caused by infectious diseases throughout history. She blogs here: Deathsplanation and you can follow her on Twitter here: @alisonatkin
I have always been fascinated by our relationship with death and dying – even from an early age. I would lay on my stomach, propped on my elbows, on the living room floor engrossed in a book half the size of me filled with images and descriptions of the funerary rituals and burial practices of the Ancient Egyptians. I was curious about and fascinated with death. I wanted to know more. I wanted to know everything. This is a pretty common phase for a lot of children, however I turned this phase into a lifelong pursuit of deathly knowledge, which has lead me to my current position as a PhD candidate studying the management of the dead during episodes of mass death in the past.
Now, to look at me, you wouldn’t know that every day of my life involves some aspect of death, dead people, or dying… but it does. I’m pretty ‘normal’; I’ve got adorable bunnies, a very pretty garden, and even a My Little Pony-Unicorn on display in my living room. Flipside: I also have lots of books on the plague, dead birds in my freezer, and a locket filled with cremated remains upstairs. A lot of people work with, study, or are generally interested in death/dead people/dying and it would never cross your mind when you meet them. Even if you speak with me and find out what I study, you wouldn’t necessarily know that I’m bereaved. This coming December will mark ten years since the death of my brother.
But, this is not a story about my research into the victims of the Black Death, or really even about my experiences of grief, mourning, and bereavement – this is story about casseroles.
During my undergraduate degree in anthropology, I knew wanted to specialise in human osteology and funerary archaeology and as a result my schedule was heavily weighted with modules in archaeology and biological anthropology. However, I had the opportunity to take some elective credits outside of my department (for which I will be forever grateful to our higher education system for) and I decided that I would take one of my electives from the religious studies department – RELG 2352.2B – Death. A course title that gets right to the point, eh? I saw it as an opportunity to study a subject from another point of view (as I had already taken lots of anthropology modules on things such as the archaeology of death, death in other cultures, skeletal identification and analysis, etc).
It was the best module I have ever taken. But this isn’t the place to go into why – suffice it to say, I learned a lot that helps me in my research and I learned a lot that helps me as a person.
The final assessment for this module was a small project, which account for a large portion of our final mark. However, the lecturer was very keen to stress that this project could be anything – provided it reflected the purpose of the course (which when it came down to it, really, was anything to do with reflecting on death). Someone made a memorial video for a deceased family pet, another person gave a presentation on the clothes people knitted for still-born babies at the hospital where their mother worked, and there was even someone who brought in different sizes/types of body bags. You know the saying everything goes? That definitely applied here.
I decided, for my final project, to make a board game. The game was called – Dying in a Small Town: The Casserole Patrol. The idea was to educate players on some aspects of grief and mourning through a less-than-serious representation of a very common situation. After the death of my brother we held a wake at our house for family and friends (and other people) and we were inundated with food… most of it in casserole form.
The gesture of giving food to the mourning is one that is practiced in many communities around the world. Most grieving people don’t feel like eating – but even if they did, they almost certainly don’t feel like cooking. In some cultures, a casserole is seen as the holy grail for grieving family food – it can happily sit on a shelf in a fridge until such a time as the grieving family wants to eat it (or more realistically feels the need to feed the many people who are visiting them). The casserole provider has managed to care for the family (oh, you must remember to eat), lighten their burden (pssh, no need to cook, just pop it in the oven), and help out with their crowded house (why, a casserole can feed an army), all in one go. Result!
It’s nice, right? Right. Except in our situation we ended up having to rearrange most of our fridge, freezer, and kitchen to accommodate all the damned things. I swear there were like fifty casseroles in our possession within a few short days. We ended up giving the majority of them away, as we aren’t really a casserole family (more of a tabouli, hummus, and raw vegetable kind of family)*. It struck me as odd at the time, it struck me as odd when I did this university project, and it still strikes me as odd now. Who the hell needs that many friggin’ casseroles? The gesture is appreciated; the execution leaves something to be desired†.
Although I cannot find a picture of the game now, I can tell you that it looked amazing. The board was made from cereal boxes or some other student-friendly source of cardboard, which I had designed to look like a verdant green town, complete with lush trees, a winding street, road signs, and a big black house at the end. The playing pieces were different coloured dinky car mini-vans, which all had oversized cardboard casseroles on the roof.
(It looked something like that.)
Like I said, awesome.
The board game came complete with an outline and instructions:
When someone dies in a small town it can impact the whole community. Small towns are interesting places – most everyone knows each other and if they do not, they pretend to.
After a family loses a loved one they are inundated with many things, visits from family, friends, and… casseroles. It is a logical choice of something to give. Grieving families often have their minds on things other than daily activities such as cooking, but everyone needs to eat. Casseroles are easy, they store well, and they are easy to get ready – just put them in the oven. But what happens when the family receives casseroles from everyone? The last thing someone wants to do while grieving is make room in their refrigerator for fifty casseroles. This game will give examples of what you can do (and some things you maybe shouldn’t do) when trying to show your condolences.
You are a family on your way to deliver a casserole to a grieving family. The family is well-known in the community and so many people have decided to help out during these hard times.
- Players take turn in order.
- On your turn, roll the die and move your piece accordingly.
- If you land on a space with a road-sign, follow the directions.
- If you land on a space with another player; you must stop to gossip, each players miss their next turn.
- If you role a two, move your piece and roll again.
- The first player to the black house wins.
- Other players should continue (if time permits).
The playing spaces (those indicated with road signs) were meant to simulate the actions of the family in the mini-van and included statements such as:
You decide to visit for fifteen minutes when you drop off the casserole, move ahead two spaces.
You stop to pick up the favourite coffees and teas of the grieving family, move ahead one space.
You tell your passengers to get a grip and stop crying before you arrive, move back two spaces.
The road ahead looks dark and all-too-familiar; sometimes change can be helpful, turn left down the terrace.
You find a photograph of the deceased in the glove-box and decide to give it to the family, move ahead one space.
You see a neighbours van and try to beat them; you get caught speeding, pull over for one turn.
You decide to throw the casserole out and give everyone in the family a proper hug, move ahead one space.
The tears in your eyes blur the road-sign; you make a wrong turn, turn left down the terrace.
Some of these spaces rewarded positive reactions, penalised negative reactions, and others impressed the manifestations of grief and their effects on our behaviour.
Or at least that’s what they tried to do.
*Thank you to the person who sent a vegetable tray – you know who you are – I am eternally grateful!
†Please note, I am not an ungrateful horrible person. All of the above is not to say that I, and my family, did not truly appreciate all of the efforts our friends, family, and other individuals put into making their casseroles – and the thought they put into the gesture of providing for us in a time of need. All I’m saying is the next time someone in your community dies… maybe organise with others through your phone-tree/ gossip-mill/ whatever mass-communication system exists in your small town, to provide a small number casseroles collectively and instead ask the family if there is anything you can do for them to help out (be it making a pot of tea, running some errands, or just being there for company).