Funeral Favors Can Be Tacky — But Their History is Long

Funeral Industry News July 5, 2020
Funeral Favors
Diana Ionescu

Diana is a writer and urbanist based in Los Angeles. Her interests include modern grief rituals, innovative disposition methods, and navigating death and mourning in an increasingly secular society.

Funeral Favors Can Be Tacky — But Their History is Long

You’ve heard of party favors and wedding favors, but have you ever received a funeral favor? A growing contingent of Etsy artisans and entrepreneurs offer all kinds of trinkets designed as gifts for funeral guests. From engraved pens to flower seed packets and personalized cookies, these keepsakes seek to honor the departed—but some don’t always hit the mark.

From routine to ridiculous

Not ready for permanent memorial ink? You can let your funeral guests indulge in the illusion with personalized temporary tattoos. Among other unusual “funeral favors” out there: personalized Koozies, playing cards, and bottles of bubbles that let you “blow kisses to heaven.” In keeping with the times, some vendors now offer pocket-sized hand sanitizer bottles decorated with images of your loved one. Other items include matchbooks, keychains, bottle stoppers, flower seed “bombs,” and customized packs of mints. You can give your guests a tea infuser etched with your loved one’s name, or a shot glass that may become a dubious addition to future parties. With some gifts, timing can be everything—perhaps save the rattling candy tins for after the ceremony!

“Funeral favors” go way back

Although it may feel like a modern trend capitalizing on a somber occasion, gifting trinkets honoring the dead at funerals isn’t at all a new practice. At traditional Japanese funerals, guests receive a gift when departing(often proportional to the gift that the guest gave the grieving family). In Romania, funeral attendees are given candles and handkerchiefs—presumably, you’ll need both during the burial ceremony. 

The death-obsessed Victorians, known for their elaborate mourning rituals, memento mori, and memorial jewelry that included locks of the deceased’s hair, gifted “funeral biscuits” to mourners. These were small cookies wrapped in white paper and sealed with black wax. In 19th century Sweden, funeral attendees received corpse-shaped hard candies, often accompanied by a written Bible verse or prayer. These exquisitely decorated candies featured drawings, silver foil, and fringed wrappers that indicated the age of the deceased. The tradition only faded out when sugar rations imposed by World War I prevented the production of frivolous items like candies.

For well-to-do colonial Americans, it was once fashionable to give gifts to funeral guests, with the most prominent guests often receiving the best gifts. These funeral favors included jewelry, scarves, gloves, and other trinkets of assorted value. The gifts held particular significance and served to grease social and political relations in Puritan society. People often collected funeral gifts as tokens of their social network and ties with significant families rather than as remembrances of the dead.

Comfort foods

In many cultures, lavish meals accompany funerals, often featuring symbolically significant foods. Sociologists point to the visceral nature of eating, the necessary act of nourishing our bodies, as a natural response to remind ourselves that we, unlike the deceased, are still here. 

“We eat because we are alive,” writes Abe Opincar in the New York Times. The post-funeral meal varies by place and time, but almost everywhere you go, food follows funerals. The American Midwest is known for rich, comforting casseroles; Utah and Idaho, unsurprisingly, claim a dish of funeral potatoes; Hindus, who eschew meat during mourning, gift baskets of fruit or vegetables. Even before the dawn of agriculture, archaeological records show evidence of elaborate funeral feasts.

Post-funeral meals offer support in deeply biological ways. It turns out grief triggers similar physiological response as fear—namely, our ever-present fight-or-flight mechanism. When we’re on edge, fearful of what might come, we lose our appetite. Grieving people need nourishment, both physically and emotionally. Feeding the bereaved keeps them nourished when they’re less likely to do so for themselves. Food means survival, comfort, home. Sharing a meal after a funeral combines the act of gift-giving with real physical and emotional nourishment and support. 

Modern memento mori

As Americans, we love to collect souvenirs from our travels and experiences. But as human beings, naturally averse to contemplating our own mortality, do we want reminders of death hanging out casually in our kitchen drawer? The renewed interest in funeral favors and modern memento mori hints that our relationship with death and our anxiety as a culture to face it head on is evolving. Perhaps, when done right, funeral favors can serve as a joyful reminder of a beloved friend or relative and a gentle admonition to make the best of our own remaining days.