Funeral food: Dikuku to kifyaat

2015-04-12 12:30

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Cultures do it differently, but all have a way with food after a death

At its sweetest, South African funeral food acts as an expression of support for the deceased’s family.

Less savoury is its role in marking and maintaining social status.

Bereaved families failing to offer postburial nourishment in line with community expectations may discover there are fates worse than death.

South African funeral culinary customs are culturally and regionally specific, but most cater generously for these large and gregarious gatherings.

The odd ones out are English-speaking white Anglo-Saxon Protestants (Wasps), who serve post-funeral snacks for close friends and family only.

Their attempts at comfort are distributed prior to the funeral in the form of baked casseroles left anonymously for the bereaved on the deceased’s doorstep.

Weird Wasps aside, the rest mark death with multiple mass-participation meals. A traditional Pedi funeral is publicly announced by way of sounding a tshipi ya dillo (bell for tears).

Brewing starts on Wednesday for a Saturday burial. Bucket loads of dikuku (scones) are required for preburial condolence visitors. The slaughtering of a beast (and its self-restrained preparation without salt) are non-negotiable postburial offerings.

It would be considered impossibly rude for a family not to provide sufficient funeral food to feed all comers or for a guest to refuse to eat at such an event.

Woe betide any Limpopo family failing to feed the diphiri grave diggers who return the day after the event for a meal of cow head and feet accompanied by bjala marole beer (which literally translates as beer for cleaning the dust).

Similar social sanction awaits a member of the NG Kerk Vrouediens who brings an inadequately adorned sandwich platter – triangular cut, crust free and set atop a lettuce-leaf base is the minimum requirement, with extra points awarded for cocktail gherkin and tomato garnishes.

Zulu, Xhosa and Sotho-style traditional funerals follow a similar structure. Even before adding the costs of an optional (and often frowned-upon) after-tears party, such sendoffs are expensive and can lead to hardship for the households left behind.

Data published in 2013 in the journal Economic Development and Cultural Change found the price of the aforementioned cow represented more than a third of a year’s income for more than half of those who purchased such funeral food.

Scones are less expensive, but no less necessary. Limpopo’s dikuku are KwaZulu-Natal’s MaSkhosana and Soweto’s Potchefstrooms – apparently because the Chris Hani Baragwanath hospital is on the Old Potch Road and those who enter the hospital are assumed to be leaving in a coffin.

No one seems to know who Mrs Skhosana was, but she had a great deal in common with the sisters of the NG Kerk who make botterbroodjies.

There are seldom scones involved in Cape Malay Muslim funeral food, but there are huge pots of kifyaat funeral food (which always includes pea and carrot bredie) served when the men return from the cemetery.

This is followed by a series of religious remembrance gatherings at the home of the deceased on the third, 40th and 100th night after burial, at which Koranic recitals are accompanied by biscuits and gedatmelk (sweetened milk with rose syrup).

Zulu deaths require similar ceremonies at three months for children and 12 months for widows.

The dearly departed are not forgotten in all the feasting. Many of us leave tea cups as gifts at the graveside.

The graves of deceased Xhosa men (although never women) are occasionally adorned with mini brandy bottles – especially during ukuphahla ancestral interactions. Some Zulu graves are adorned with a calabash of beer.

Such gifts are an ornamental marking of the beverage choices the deceased made in life, rather than a belief he might arise and partake.

From the ezenkeni (metal sheet) laid out with meat to the koeksister and stuffed egg-laden platters set atop tables (in the shape of a cross) in a Free State NG Kerk hall, all such meals are a symbolically defiant assertion of life in the face of death.

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