AN EXTRA PLACE AT THE TABLE
When those we love dearly can no longer be with us, either through separation or loss, it leaves a huge hole in our lives and an empty space at our table.
Setting an extra place at the table can bring comfort to those who wait for the safe return of family and friends. It can also bring solace to those, whose loved ones can no longer return to them. Keeping their memory alive in hearts and minds, allowing loss to be absorbed and navigated over time.
Food and feasting are important at every event and milestone in our lives. The simple act of preparing and sharing food demonstrates our love for each other, bringing emotional and ritualistic daily comfort. It can nourish us emotionally and physically. It can be symbolic, evoke memory, draw on historical, cultural and traditional sources, to help us find meaning and come to terms with life and death events. Loss needs to be mourned, acceptance of sadness is a natural and necessary part of a maturing process, reducing stress, anxiety and depression in the surviving relatives.
As a means of communication, food expresses our social relationships, it acts as messenger, encoded with meanings and narratives. Food can offer us a sense of identity and belonging, the very act of eating gives affirmation of life itself.
‘Dining with the dead. Dr Elsa Richardson. Chancellor’s Fellowship in the History of Health and Wellbeing at the Centre for the Social History of Health and Healthcare (CSHHH) at the University of Strathclyde.
Victorian Britain was full of hungry ghosts. Ghosts that left bite marks in apples, nibbled spears of buttered asparagus, wolfed game pie, sipped wine and relished cream cakes. From the middle of the nineteenth century spirits were called to tea by followers of spiritualism, a popular movement that
was grounded in the conviction that it was possible to communicate with the souls of the dead.
In the enchanted domestic spaces produced by spiritualism, dining practices became essential to the practice of faith. Where in traditional Christian service, the consumption of food was controlled by the male clergy and confined to the taking of holy communion, in spiritualism food took on a more expansive and varied role. For one, it served an evangelical function: the lure of homemade cake and endless pots of tea promised by spiritualist associations drew many new believers to the cause, while domestic seances were usually accompanied by a spread of tempting sandwiches and savouries. Spiritualist accounts of the afterlife, what they described as the ‘Summerland’, often included descriptions of food and drink, and many of the questions put to visiting spirits concerned the issue of consumption. From reports given by spirits, the movement developed a remarkably detailed picture of what this ‘Summerland’ looked like: more than just a heaven of fluffy clouds and eternal love, the spiritualist afterlife was a whole other world, replete with alternative systems of governance, revised sexual relations and its own music, literature and art. This richly imagined world also necessitated
a reconfiguration of the everyday and the domestic, a re-examination of quotidian habits: do we eat and drink in the afterlife? And if so what?
This excerpt has been taken from MOTH publication An Extra Place at The Table and will be available to purchase in DUST for £7.50