Country of Origin: Italy
On the Italian island of Sardinia, where I was born and still live, there has always been a deep-rooted belief that on the night of November 1 and 2, the fragile yet unsurpassable boundary between the living and the dead becomes more permeable. In the hope that loved ones who have died will find a way to return to this earthly realm for a few hours, and to nourish them from the dark journey they must take, many families set the table as if it were one of the happiest days of celebration.
This is what we have always called the Dinner of the Dead. The tradition of preparing a rich banquet for the deceased has been handed down for centuries.
In my family, the only one who prepared food for the dead was my great-aunt Alda, an older relative of my mother’s. The first time I attended the Dinner of the Dead, everything seemed shrouded in an air of fascinating yet eerie mystery. I was six years old and could not fully comprehend what it meant to lose a loved one. My grandparents were still alive then, and I was too little to remember my late great-grandparents.
Great-aunt Alda had always told me about her only son, who had died in the 1950s at five years old from a mysterious fever, for which no doctor had ever been able to find a cause, much less a cure. She had also lost her husband a few years earlier, and, as a widow, her life revolved around memories of happy times.
Her desire to feel them again was so strong that she looked forward to the Night of the Dead to remember them, secretly hoping to receive some sign of their presence. She would start cooking two days in advance.
I remember that on November 2, I would get up early and go to the cemetery with my parents and grandparents to place flowers on the graves of my great-grandparents. Then, after lighting candles and saying silent prayers for the departed, we would all go to my great-aunt Alda’s house for dinner.
It was a ritual that none of us ever missed. Around seven o’clock, she would diligently pull out the best dishes she had, and set the table for the living and the dead. As soon as she let us into the house, she would show us the table. For this strange feast, she cooked fava beans, legumes, almonds, hazelnuts, dried figs, apples, pasta with cheese, and above all, the typical Sardinian sweets (pabassinas or papassini, pirichittus, cheese cakes and pardulas).
My favorite, however, was the “bones of the dead,” the most popular rustic, oven-baked biscuits. These are made with almonds, eggs, sugar, cinnamon, and lemon zest, then glazed with silver sprinkles. In Cagliari, the island’s capital, they are black because of a special ingredient called “sapa,” made from grape must and associated with mourning precisely because it makes the dough darker than usual. Curiously, the biscuits are not really shaped like bones but like a fish, because they symbolize the faith of the early Christians, who used it as a traditional sign to recognize each other during times of persecution by the Romans.
The pomegranate, a typical autumn fruit that grows in the Sardinian countryside, is also often associated with the dead, while its seeds are considered to bring new life.
In short, everyone is free to choose a little bit of what they want, even taking into account the tastes of the dearly departed, who may have had a special fondness for certain foods in life.
My great-aunt explained to me that the plates should always be white, the napkins perfectly folded, the glasses filled with red wine or water, and the chairs of the dead pushed away from the table to prevent the dead from making noise when they arrive. Great-aunt Alda, like other women from the inland villages of the island, used a white tablecloth, which could be made of filet (a traditional lace or crocheted lace with geometric patterns, like those on church altars), linen, or simple cotton, and with embroidery in the shape of roses and ears of corn.
It is customary to light a small candle at the center of the table to guide the lost souls in finding their way back to the house where they lived, and where they can finally embrace mothers, fathers, children, sisters or brothers one last time, or say a quick goodbye before crossing back over to the other side.
In the past, people like my great-aunt used a candle made of a cloth wick soaked in oil and embedded in a piece of cork that was left to float and burn in a bowl or pot of water. Each deceased person had their own flame that burned until midnight. Today, we are content to light ordinary white wax candles.
When everything was ready, my great aunt would make us sit around the table and, before we ate, she would recite a prayer in memory of the deceased. I remember my grandparents praying for their parents, my mother for her grandparents, and my grandfather for his brother who died in World War II.
As the Dinner of the Dead continued, we were surrounded by a strange and fascinating atmosphere. The candles shining in the darkness, the words whispered in memory of the dead, their names spoken aloud like a loud and clear call, gave this ritual the flavor of ancient magic. But this ritual has a dark side too…
After the meal, as no one dares to clear the table, this remains set until the next day, in case the dead come to satisfy their hunger. My great-aunt also told us no cutlery — or anything that could be used as a weapon — should remain on the table of the dead.
On the one hand, the deceased could hurt themselves; on the other hand, sometimes, a soul may have a score to settle with a mortal, so it is best not to leave possible instruments of revenge at hand. So, one must defend oneself against the attacks of those who might cross the dark threshold for a reason that has nothing to do with love.
Bedtime is no different. When the family goes to bed, the front door is left open, or at least ajar; this way the dead can enter without knocking. And to prevent tempting the dead to linger on in this life instead of returning to their dimension, sometimes dishes are placed on the windowsill to prevent the deceased from crossing the house’s threshold.
In times of famine or abject poverty, taking the keys off the doors or leaving the windows wide open also allowed those in need to sneak into homes and take food without being seen and without the humiliation of begging for a piece of bread.
In modern times, of course, no one has ever found an empty plate on the table or on the windowsill the next morning, and the living consume the rest of the food during lunch on November 2, the day on which the dead are officially commemorated.
Now that my grandparents and my great-aunt Alda have passed away, I know what it means to miss the presence of loved ones. Sometimes, as we sit at the table for a Sunday lunch or a birthday dinner, we turn to look at the sadly empty chairs, or the chairs pulled up to the table, where loved ones now reside in a place closed to us. Nothing is more painful than a meal eaten in solitude, or with nostalgia for the laughter that no longer fills the festive air.
Thank you to Julianna Wages for their inspired edit on this piece and everyone else on the Lifestyle & Relationships team.
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