Bread, Wine, and Potatoes

My uncle passed away recently. He was a wonderful, gentle man. I was not able to attend the Idaho funeral service, but nearly 100 relatives did. This weekend, while pouring over the photos from the event, and I found this picture comforting.

We may not have many food traditions as a people, but this meal qualifies – at least in the Intermountain West. I know those potatoes. Growing up, my ward boundaries included a large retirement community. My mother, who seemed to live in the Relief Society presidency, found herself coordinating the food for at least a funeral a month. If her kids smelled a chocolate sheet cake, we were trained to ask, “Did someone die?” before diving in. As a teenager, I spent a lot of hours setting up the cultural hall for these post-funeral meals, and the menu rarely varied: ham, funeral potatoes, rolls, simple green salad, jello. Why these foods? Economy, probably. I’m sure there must be a history to this tradition, but I don’t know what it is.

It’s easy to poke fun at the cuisine (“green jello with shredded carrots”), but it somehow feels fitting that this is how my family broke bread after my uncle’s service. And it feels fitting that it was prepared and served by the women of the Relief Society. It feels something like a sacrament.


Deborah is K-12 educator who nurtures a healthy interest in reading, writing, running, ethics, mystics, and interfaith dialogue.

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  1. Mike says:

    Hey, people bring those foods to the funeral because they usually get eaten, right? Don’t you think it’s the case that sometimes people attend the funeral in part (if not only) for the food? Like attending a wedding for the food.

  2. Anonymous says:

    As much as people mock the great “funeral” potatoes cuisine, is there really anyone out there who wouldn’t want a comforting, familiar meal at a very disorienting and traumatic time? If your family members were huge sushi fans, I would hope that would be the meal presented. But if you live in the Great Intermountain West, and are Mormon, those potatoes mean love.

  3. John says:

    I was listening to Garrison Keillor describe the standard Lutheran church potluck fare. I can’t remember specifics, but it was a variation on this familiar theme. It would be fun to publish a tongue-in-cheek cookbook that was a denominational survey of church fare: Mormon funeral potatoes, Baptist casseroles, UU pitas and hummus.

    Speaking of potlucks and sacraments, here’s a joke I found on

    While working on a lesson in world religions, a kindergarten teacher asked her students to bring something related to their family’s faith to class.

    At the appropriate time she asked the students to come forward and share with the rest of the students.

    The first child said, “I am Muslim and this is my prayer rug.”

    The second child said, “I am Jewish and this is my Star of David.”

    The third child said, “I am Catholic and this is my rosary.”

    Little Johnny was the final child and he said, “I am Southern Baptist and this is my casserole dish.”

    I guess we could insert “jello mold” for Mormons? *grin*

  4. jana says:

    I’m actually repulsed by most funeral food. At the last few I’ve attended I’ve only eaten the rolls and the weak green salad (shredded iceberg lettuce w/ranch dressing–blech).

    But I’m a food snob. And I’ve left specific instructions w/my loved ones that my funeral food should be vegetarian and yummy. No ham, jello, or sour cream & potatoes. I fully intend to haunt anyone who serves such fare in my memory….

  5. John says:

    It’s interesting to me how much food, culture and comfort overlap (which I think is Deborah’s point).

    Jana and I had a wonderful meal at a vegetarian/vegan restaurant last Saturday with a group of dear non-LDS friends. We were excited to introduce this restaurant to them and lingered there for a couple of hours, ordering more items and sharing them, oooh-ing and aaaah-ing our way through the courses.

    We have fun buffet meals and great times with our LDS friends, but I don’t think that we could’ve gone as a group to this little veggie cafe. In fact, I find that LDS food culture makes it difficult for me to become vegetarian, in part because I value the connections I make with fellow Mormons over food. So, unlike Jana, I’m okay with cheesy potatoes and ham at my funeral, though I hope that someone brings sushi and a few good veggie options as well. 🙂

  6. Deborah says:

    John: I didn’t know Baptists had a love affair with casseroles! I see great potential for an interfaith cookbook . . .


    Might be worth leaving some recipes with your final instructions 🙂 . . . I assume that RS women provide meals in other parts of the country/world — I’ve only ever attended Mormon funerals in Utah, and this meal is as familiar and ritualistic as most ordinances. For my family, it’s a return to roots.
    I wonder what is served out here on the East coast. What is served in the UK? Latin America? To what extent has there been funeral food correlation 🙂

  7. EmilyCC says:

    I never thought about the comfort offered by funeral food before, but I love this idea. We lived in three different wards when we were in Boston, and I found the funeral menu varied depending on how many Utah transplants were in the ward (and if they were in positions of authority). It would be really interesting to see what the geographic and cultural differences in ward funeral cuisine is around the world.

    As a little teaser, I think this piece compliments the post I’m writing for this Friday. It’s about what happened when I brought a blue cheese potato salad to our ward’s Relief Society birthday party last month instead of the traditional yellow potato salad with the bread and butter pickels and hardboiled eggs.

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