Friday, October 16, 2009

Dining with the Dead

By Alissa Vidulich

BEWARE: if the mere title of this article makes you queasy, uneasy or unsettled slowly scroll away from the article...

While picnics are typically regarded as being rather enjoyable and relaxing, cemeteries can stir a sweeping range of thoughts and emotions, from tranquility to terror. A cemetery picnic would be no 'picnic' for those who fear cemeteries, these people are known as Coimetrophobes. Those who are “[morbidly attracted] to” or even simply “fond” of cemeteries are referred to as Taphophiliacs, according to

If you find yourself in want of an outdoor excursion, and don't mind the scenery of tombstones of course, cemetery picnicking provides a unique alternative to the backyard or city park.

Cemetery socials were particularly common during the Victorian Era or “Gilded Age,” early 1800s to 1900s. Queen Victorian inspired the name of the time period as well as many aspects of day to day living during that time. With the Industrial Revolution in full swing the wealthy class was expanding. The worldwide nouveau riche looked to Queen Victoria, much like the present day “young Hollywood” look to Victoria Beckham, or (heaven forbid) Paris Hilton, for lifestyle cues. Thus, daily etiquette steadily grew more proper and restricting.

Picnicking provided somewhat of an escape from the etiquette-intensive formal dinners and balls of the time, but became common enough so that eventually there were regulations regarding picnic etiquette as well. Isabella Beeton's The Book of Household Management, published in 1861, lists essential picnic items, “It is scarcely necessary to say that plates, tumblers, wine-glasses, knives, forks, and spoons, must not be forgotten; as also teacups and saucers, 3 or 4 teapots,” she continues, “3 dozen quart bottles of ale, packed in hampers; ginger-beer, soda-water, and lemonade, of each 2 dozen bottles; 6 bottles of sherry, 6 bottles of claret, champagne à discrétion, and any other light wine that may be preferred, and 2 bottles of brandy.”

It is likely if anyone from the 21st Century were to bring their fine china and entire liquor cabinet to a picnic s/he might be hauled off to rehab.

Common dishes of the era included boiled tongue, curried rabbit, stewed eels and plum pudding. Yum!

Women would be fully dressed in their, often ornate, apparel. The men were to cater to the women while picnicking and would often be responsible for the brewing of tea using kerosene burners. They were required to stand if the women were seated.

“Picnics and celebrating of any kind were forbidden during the two years of mourning {mourning: the period of proper grief after the death of a loved one},” states Lisa Lewis a.k.a. Victoriana Lady, Professional Victorian Public Speaker and founder of, “If the family enjoyed the park-like atmosphere of the cemetery they could go anytime. For most people though it was for sentimental reasons, they wanted to stay close to their lost loved one after death.”

Cemetery picnicking in particular was “quite common,” according to Lewis “larger cemeteries were laid out like parks in the 1800's just for this purpose.”

While the many customs of picnicking have passed on since the 19th Century there are those who still relive the tradition of the Gilded Age. Cemetery picnics are now seen as a unique way to garner donations to assist in the upkeep of various cemeteries, such as the All Saints Soirée being held Oct. 24 by Save Our Cemeteries, a New Orleans group dedicated to the preservation of historic cemeteries.

For others cemetery socials are simply a great way to enjoy the day/night and might include a tour of cemetery, games, music and photography. William Burg, President of the Sacramento County Historical Society, explains the attraction of modern man to such events, “it is the appeal of having an event in such an unusually historic and beautiful place, and having an event that is obviously a celebration of life in a place associated with death.”

Still, there dines another breed who actually prefer to celebrate the concept of death and picnic in cemeteries for their darker “charms.” No, not ghouls, but goths. Jillian Venters, author of the book Gothic Charm School: An Essential Guide for Goths and Those Who Love Them, recently held the release party at Brooklyn's Greenwood Cemetery. The event attracted scores of fans, or as Venters lovingly refers to them, 'Snarklings', in full Victorian-goth getup who drank tea and listened to excerpts from the gothic guide.

Aside from the Coimetrophobes, those of Jewish faith are also strictly opposed to dining among the deceased.

“Eating and drinking may not take place on the cemetery,” Rabbi Maurice Lamm proclaims, in his article Cemetery Etiquette on, “It is a violation of every code of honor.”

If you are interested in throwing your own post-mortem potluck, tombstone tea-party or belated brunch be sure to get permission from the cemetery owner(s), be respectful of the territory and invite acquaintances {just not your Rabbi!} in advance.

Credit: MISSING!

1 comment:

  1. Dear Alissa,
    Great article! I enjoyed being interviewed about Victorian Picnic customs, thanks for the link as well!

    Kind regards,
    Victorian Era Reenactor & Public Speaker
    Victoriana Lady