New exhibit takes unique look at death, food and remembrance

April 7, 2014

(Rendering and reconstruction by Travis Saul, 2014)
This Katumuwa stele, or memorial stone, was discovered by University of Chicago archaeologists in 2008 in Turkey. The facsimile, on display at the Oriental Institute, shows this man named Katumuwa in the afterlife and gives detailed instructions to his descendants.

When someone passes away today, it’s pretty common for friends and family to reminisce about them over food and drink. Just think about all those casseroles and cookies that pile up or about hoisting a glass at an Irish wake.

It turns out, in some ancient cultures, that use of food went, well, further.

A new show at the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute opens Tuesday, and it takes an unusual look at death. The show’s called “In Remembrance of Me: Feasting with the Dead in the Ancient Middle East.”

It examines how we’ve remembered our loved ones across cultures and time, and the ways people have tried to control how they’ll be thought of too. It highlights some ancient Middle Eastern cultures that believed souls lived on in monuments and needed to be fed so later generations could just come and hang out with them.

“Cultures all over world, in all different periods in all areas of the world have done this, have had some way of maintaining contact their deceased ancestors,” said Emily Teeter, a research associate and special exhibits coordinator at the Oriental Institute.

“In Egyptian theology, they thought they would live forever, as long as they were remembered by the living,” she said, adding that this ancient culture believed part of the soul lived on in monuments, and keeping those souls alive required lots and lots of food.

She pointed to a stone slab with an engraving of a couple who were unmistakably Egyptian, with angular black wigs, jeweled collars.

All over the monument, there are tiny carvings of birds, oxen, bread, even beer. Teeter said those are instructions on what to bring the couple to keep them alive: They wanted a thousand each of oxen, birds, bread and beer.

“The Egyptian dead were apparently constantly hungry,” Teeter said. “...To stay alive you need to eat, and their whole goal with mummification, with creating these monuments, is to live eternally.”

Teeter said the couple - who died more than 4,000 years ago -- even planned ahead on what to do once all their descendants had passed away, and there was no one to bring them food anymore. The engraving says that if visitors don’t happen to have 1,000 oxen on them, it’s enough to just pray for the food.

And it’s not just the ancient Middle East where rites like this happened. At an excavation site in Vatican City, University of Chicago Divinity School Dean Margaret Mitchell saw tubes sticking out of burial sites. She said that was so people could pour in beverages to share with their dead loved ones.

Mitchell said some Roman catacombs had tables for people to eat between rows of burial urns.

“Whether the dead can still eat a Twinkie or can still drink a good glass of merlot, it’s a way of tenderly caring for the dead,” Mitchell said.

The monuments go beyond providing the living with that connection to the dead, or assuring the dead will keep getting fed. In some cases, these statues and stones let people control how they’ll be remembered.

The exhibit’s showpiece is a replica of an ornately carved memorial stone of a man named Katumuwa. He’s in fancy dress, sitting at a banquet table full of food, looking relaxed and happy in the afterlife. Before he died, commissioned it himself.

“It’s not just ‘Pete was here,’ but it’s even bigger,” Mitchell said. She likened this memorial stone to the huge monument Illinois politician Roland Burris has had built, even though he’s still very much alive.

It’s like saying, “I’m not going to leave it to the winds or your children to decide how you’re going to be remembered, but I want to steer that process myself,” Mitchell said. “In some ways, the monuments are like a fist to the sky that says, I refuse to be forgotten.’”

Lynette Kalsnes is a WBEZ producer/reporter covering religion, culture and science. Follow her @LynetteKalsnes.