Comfort food

Nadine “Queenie” Grant preps food for a reception.

Bereaved relatives, already facing a slew of choices surrounding funeral planning, now have one more significant decision to make: Fried chicken or spaghetti?

A growing number of funeral homes have begun incorporating food service into their amenity packages, giving mourners the opportunity to savor pound cake made according to their late grandmother’s recipe or knock back martinis mixed to their late grandfather’s specifications. According to the National Funeral Directors Association, nearly one in 10 U.S. funeral homes features a banquet hall or dining room. Although the concept dates back to the early 2000s, its popularity has picked up rapidly since 2011, when only 6 percent of funeral homes were outfitted for memorial service meals.

“For me as a Generation X funeral home director, one of the things that attracted me to funeral service was the chance to offer different and meaningful ways to celebrate and honor your loved one’s life, and food is just a natural part of celebration,” says Mark Smith, owner of McAlister-Smith, which over the past five years has added banquet facilities to all four of its Charleston-area locations.

Receptions arranged by funeral homes mimic the gamut of post-ceremony comfort spreads traditionally staged in living rooms and social halls. The menu may be as modest as coffee and cookies, or as elaborate as a shrimp-and-grits-centered buffet.

The new endeavor is profitable for funeral homes. “Reception facilities are not only used by families for luncheons after funerals,” NFDA spokeswoman Jessica Koth says. “Most funeral homes allow members of the public to host other events in these spaces, such as birthday parties, weddings and anniversary parties.” It’s also convenient for relatives of the deceased, Smith says.

In some states, though, it’s illegal to serve more than a breath mint in a funeral home. The Supreme Court last year refused to hear an appeal challenging Pennsylvania’s food-and-drink prohibition, similar to laws on the books in five other Northeastern states and North Dakota.

While there aren’t any such legal obstacles in the Lowcountry, the setup has been slower to catch on in the South, perhaps because funeral food is such a hallowed genre here.

Southerners didn’t invent the notion of conveying sympathy in edible form. Cultures around the world mark death with symbolic dishes. Greek families prepare a sprouted wheat salad. Mexican families serve tamales. But the South’s twin affinities for food and kinship prop up an extravagant system that’s equal parts caloric and compassionate. “Pass the chicken, pass the pie/ We sure eat good when somebody dies,” folk artist Kate Campbell sang in “Funeral Food.”

Early Carolinians commemorated a person’s passing with a funeral biscuit, which was meant to be saved, like a slice of wedding cake. Nowadays, towering coconut cakes and caramel cakes that make your teeth twinge are customary.

“In the South, if your second cousin, whom you have not seen since she moved away three years ago, calls to express her sorrow at learning of the ‘passing of your momma,’ you best retrieve the card tables from the cellar: three casseroles of macaroni and cheese will soon be arriving at your front door,” John T. Edge, now director of the Southern Foodways Alliance, wrote in his 2002 book, “A Gracious Plenty.”

Writing about funeral food for “The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture,” Charlotte Observer food editor Kathleen Purvis cited squash casserole, cheese grits, corn pudding, hoppin’ John and fried chicken — whether homemade or bought by the bucket — as perpetual funeral guests. In their cheeky book devoted to Southern funeral etiquette, Charlotte Hays and Gayden Metcalfe listed tomato aspic, deviled eggs, butterbeans and banana nut bread as funeral must-haves.

When Southern food rituals were at their peak, a widow could assess her late husband’s social standing by counting up the number of plates she needed to return after his funeral, Purvis writes. Along with guest registries, funeral homes routinely handed out food books with stickers for Tupperware tracking.

Even now, local caterer Barry Waldrop says, “The churches have bereavement committees, so you don’t get nine mac-and-cheeses and 12 Mary Mac’s fried chickens.”

But Charleston’s emergence as a retirement community means many elderly residents don’t have family networks or longstanding congregations to host their remembrances. “They’re lost,” says Waldrop, who handles all of the catering for McAlister-Smith.

Joanne Remington lives in Wando, but wasn’t sure guests at her mother’s funeral would want to make the trek back to her house. So she and her brother requested a cold buffet at McAlister-Smith.

“It was such a relief,” she says. “(Guests) could sit down and talk, or take a plate back to work.”

Remington’s only worry was whether guests would eat the pimento cheese sandwiches. “I’m not a fan,” she says. “But we got more compliments on the pimento. We had croissants with chicken salad and fruit and cookies and everything.”

“My biggest focus is to make the food as lovely as possible,” says Waldrop, who’s discovered relatives exhausted by discussions of death notices and floral displays are often eager to talk about the sangria that accompanied every happy occasion in their late aunt’s life. They feel confident when choosing fried chicken over salad, or ordering a favorite pasta dish.

“I change the pace and make it upbeat,” Waldrop says. “I always say, enjoy the send-off. Let’s face it: The best times in the world are when you’re eating.”

Sometimes all the catering that’s called for is a Champagne toast: Smith says coastal funeral directors are commonly asked to organize ash-scatterings at sea, which requires tending to the food-and-drink needs of the mourners aboard the boat.

“Obviously, our culture is changing, and some families choose to have more of a cocktail-type reception,” says Walker Posey, president of the South Carolina Funeral Directors Association.

Posey is a funeral director in Aiken County, where churches still manage funeral food. While Waldrop slips a brochure into every client’s packet, Posey says most funeral directors in his area only discuss catering options if prompted.

“Directors are hesitant to get involved because of the churches,” Posey says. “But they would say yes if asked, because we want to be of service. Funeral directors are caregivers, but they should also wear the hat of event planner.”

To accommodate any food service requests, Posey negotiated a deal with a 50-seat private dining facility.

“It’s very infrequent,” that Posey fields such requests, he says. “But if they choose it, I’m ready.”