• "So when we offer food to the dead, its not a just a sign of respect but the act encourages you to be generous." (AFP/Getty Images)
“While the person you are honouring may not be able to physically eat the food, it's comforting to know that every incense we burn is an invitation to their spirits, so that they are able to spiritually enjoy and bless the food we end up eating.”
By
Yasmin Noone

12 Apr 2018 - 12:18 PM  UPDATED 13 Apr 2018 - 9:33 AM

When a loved one dies, some people demonstrate the pain felt from their loss by wailing loudly. Others cry uncontrollably. But in true Buddhist tradition, the revered reaction is to hold in your tears and honour the dead by feeding them.

Revered Miao You, director of the Nan Tien Temple in Berkeley NSW tells SBS how Buddhists believe that when a person’s body has died, their consciousness temporarily lingers on Earth before moving onto the afterlife.

“When someone has just passed away, you have to somehow contain your grief because if you are grieving, wailing and crying too much, the deceased will be upset,” says Revered Miao You, director of the Nan Tien Temple in Berkeley NSW.

“You want them to go away happy, so they move onto their next life [through reincarnation] peacefully. So at a Buddhist funeral the descendants – the people who are left behind – do some chanting or meditating to guide the dead [through to their next life] and so that they feel calm and know that dying is a part of life.”

Meditation or chanting is complemented by food offerings. Those who remain present the deceased with food to show them – as they linger on Earth in consciousness – that they are loved in death as they were loved in life.

“It’s their last meal, so to speak."

Food offerings are usually made of grains, fruits and vegetables and must not be meat or fish. Reverend You says this could upset the deceased. 

“It’s their last meal, so to speak,” she says. “Their spirit is still around so they can see the food offering. The [deceased] will say ‘they put all of my favourite food in front of me. They really do care for me and now I can go away feeling happy and content for the life I’ve lived". Of course, everyone understands that their loved one is dead but the food is a symbol of respect."

Food is also offered to Buddha at funerals as an act of generosity. “Buddha was a priest and had a lot of subjects and poor people, so he always gave to the poor. He encouraged people to give because then they wouldn’t be greedy. So when we offer food to the dead, it's not a just a sign of respect but the act encourages you to be generous – because you can’t be generous and greedy at the same time.”

Qingming: A Chinese tomb-sweeping day

Honouring the dead with food is not just a one-off event that takes place at a funeral. The annual Ching Ming festival or Qingming is an ancient ‘tomb-sweeping day’ involving food that dates back 2500 years. The date changes annually to align with the Gregorian calendar but this year it occurred in early April.

Reverend You explains that although many Buddhists practice Qingming, it’s more of a Chinese tradition than a religious one. “It’s a cultural thing,” she says. “In the old days, most people in China were Daoists or Confucianists and with the Chinese culture they say you should provide an offering to pay respects to your parents.”

“We either bring along an abundance of food to their gravesite or have a setup at home where we pray to food in a way that almost feels like we are feeding the spirits of the dead.”

Aimee Chanthadavong – who is of Chinese, Lao and Cambodian heritage – tells SBS she was raised in a Buddhist household in the Sydney suburb of Cabramatta to follow the tradition of Qingming. Now in her 30s, Chanthadavong still recognises the festival and uses it as a way to honour relatives who have passed like her grandparents and great aunt.

“It’s our version of the ‘day of the dead’ where we celebrate all those who have died,” says Chanthadavong. “We either bring along an abundance of food to their gravesite or have a setup at home where we pray to food in a way that almost feels like we are feeding the spirits of the dead.”

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The food varies but the must-haves are a whole duck, chicken, pork and oranges. There’s often seafood, a noodle dish and rice but people pray with alcohol and tea too.

“While the person you are honouring may not be able to physically eat the food, it's comforting to know that every incense we burn is an invitation to their spirits, so that they are able to spiritually enjoy and bless the food we end up eating.”

No food ever goes to waste. “We usually burn incense and when the incense finishes burning then we pack up and turn it into a family meal.” 

SBS chef, Luke Nguyen, is one of the many Vietnamese-Australians who also practice this cultural ritual of offering food to loved ones who have past. In episode 5 of Luke Nguyen's Food Trail, airing 8pm, Thursday on SBS, Luke visits his mum and Aunty 8 in Hoc Mon, Vietnam. Here he cooks a traditional feast to present as an offering to his grandfather's grave while accompanied by his immediate family.

Forever remembered, on your anniversary

Buddhists also honour their ancestors with food on the anniversaries of their loved one’s death.

Dat Ngo is also a practising Buddhist. Born in Vietnam, he came to Australia as a refugee in the 1980s and now lives in Sydney’s south-west.

He tells SBS his father passed away in 2001. Every year since, his large family has gathered together to honour his father on the anniversary of his death.

“We go to the temple, say prayers,” says Ngo. “Then we go to the graveyard and pay our respects to him. We bring flowers and a little bit of food – whatever he liked to eat the most. We also prepare a big meal at home – either dinner or lunch.”

“Sometimes I question ‘why do you cook something for someone who has passed away? Why not save the food and give it to someone who’s alive?’ But that’s just the culture.”

The Vietnamese spread varies each year but Ngo says it’s always traditional food because that’s what his father (and his family) used to eat: dishes like spring rolls, salads, soup and fried egg noodles with vegetables. “You cook to remember them, so you prepare the type of food they like. You put it on the table and pray.”

Ngo explains that he was only very young when he came to Australia. Although he is a proud Vietnamese, he was raised as an Australian and grew up around various Anglo-Australian funeral traditions, which did not involve food. Today, he follows Vietnamese ways but often, the philosophies behind this part of his culture – feeding the dead to honour them – are slightly confusing.

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“Sometimes I question ‘why do you cook something for someone who has passed away? Why not save the food and give it to someone who’s alive?’ But that’s just the culture.”

The upside of honouring those who have passed with a meal is that food unites people. Sitting down to eat with his six sisters and three brothers on the anniversary of his father’s death is a symbol that the family unit remains strong.

“We don’t see each other all the time except on big occasions. But every year on the anniversary of my dad, we try to come together as a family. It’s also good to see each other, to sit down and have a meal together.

“Parents want to make sure you stick together and that you don’t ever forget your background. They want you to pass your culture onto your children and grandchildren. So these traditions help us to continue our culture and to know where we come from.”

This week on Luke Nguyen's Food Trail, Luke visits his Mum and Aunty 8 in Hoc Mon before cooking a traditional feast to present as an offering to his grandfathers grave, a significant day with his immediate family. Luke Nguyen's Food Trail airs 8pm, Thursdays on SBS and then you can catch-up on SBS On Demand. Visit the program page for recipes, videos and more.

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