Filipinos visit the graves of departed loved ones in Manila.

442: The Tradition of Feeding the Dead Lives On

For All Souls Day, we take a look at how Asian cultures show love through food—in life and death

Filipinos visit the graves of departed loved ones in Manila.

Ezra Acayan

Words by Quin Scott

The 442: A JoySauce column named after the military unit, designed to school you (in all the best ways) on accomplished Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders of the past. Asians have been shaping American history, culture, food, politics, identity, and more for centuries—it’s time we acknowledge what’s been left out of most textbooks.

Have a historical tidbit you’d like to share? Let us know!

“Have you eaten?”, or something similar, is a common refrain in many Asian cultures. Feeding one another is how many of us show love and remain connected to one another—a tradition that starts in life but continues in death.

One such example is All Souls Day in the Philippines—celebrated on Nov. 2, it is a time for Filipinos to pay respect for their loved ones who have passed away. Families gather at gravesites, playing, chatting, and eating to celebrate loved ones past and present in a scene along the lines of a picnic or reunion. My mom recalls being struck by the tone when she would celebrate as a child, by the joyful nature of a gathering in such an unlikely place. And she recalled looking on with anxious anticipation as family members left food for the dead, wondering if they would come back to life.

The Philippines is not alone in this custom of offering food for the dead. While living in China, I would watch folks walk into the foothills near my apartment on Tomb Sweeping Day to celebrate alongside the graves of their dead loved ones and leave snacks behind (you can read here how perhaps this tradition has changed over time). Several other Asian cultures have variations of this as well.

In looking to retrace where this practice originated, one finds a rich spectrum of origin stories that speak to the universality of the importance of food and the desire to connect with our departed loved ones. The story behind Tomb Sweeping Day involves a prince’s desire to honor an estranged attendant who has passed away. Japan’s holiday Obon is informed by a story in which the Buddha recommends food as an offering after his disciple asks for help for his mother, who is stuck in the realm of hungry ghosts. In India, the Hindu epic the Mahābhārata tells the story of Karna, who is offered gold and jewels when he reaches heaven. Karna asked Indra why he was being denied real food. Indra replied that while Karna had donated gold all his life, he had never offered food to his ancestors. These stories speak to senses of duty and kinship, and a means by which food in particular can act as a bond between the living and the dead.

These stories speak to senses of duty and kinship, and a means by which food in particular can act as a bond between the living and the dead.

These practices often emerge into new forms as cultures change. For example, All Souls Day in the Philippines is primarily a Catholic holiday. However, the practice of offering food in the Philippines, known as atang by the Ilocano (or alay for the Tagalog and halad for the Cebuano) has indigenous origins preceding Catholicism. Meant to feed the dead and ward off malevolent spirits, atang has persisted even as Catholicism asserted itself as the dominant framework for much of Filipino cultural and spiritual life, even fitting within that framework on All Saints Day.

In another example of cultural hybridity, Chinese food offerings have roots in both Confucian and Buddhist belief systems. Emily S. Wu, in her essay “Chinese Ancestral Worship: Food to Sustain, Transform, and Heal the Dead and the Living” for the collection Dying to Eat: Cross-Cultural Perspectives on Food, Death, and the Afterlife, writes that “Chinese ancestral worship today must be considered as having two intertwining models underlying the ritualistic acts.”

The liminality of food offerings emerging from and moving through different traditions and influences feels in line with the practices themselves in that they too serve to connect and blur boundaries between material and spiritual, living and dead. And further, the persistence of this practice through cultural transformation may, like the practice itself, serve as a reminder that memory and practice brings life, whether that be loved ones who have passed on, or cultural practices that have had to withstand colonial violence. These different belief systems are entangled within one another, both remaining whole and emerging as something new.

A woman pours beer on the grave of her husband during the Qing Ming festival, also known as Tomb Sweeping Day.

Greg Baker/AFP via Getty Images

Wu also writes how “living blood descendants use ritual offerings of food to establish a community that includes the dead ancestors and to sustain such familial relationships. In this inclusive community, the ancestors continue to serve social roles long after their physical deaths.” This reminds me of Indigenous ecologist and writer Robin Wall Kimmerer’s description of the gift economy. She writes, “To name the world as gift is to feel one’s membership in the web of reciprocity. It makes you happy—and it makes you accountable.”

Offering food to the dead is to offer ourselves into that web, and to offer our departed loved ones continued presence in that web as well. It feeds them, and it feeds us, and offers a reminder of the wider expanse of relationships that we take part in. To how many others are we kin, whether through blood or by choice? We offer food to our dead loved one, alongisde our many other relatives, and alongside many other families doing the same. To how many others will we be future ancestors, and how will they see us? This is the piece of accountability– that to place ourselves in a lineage, we offer our words and actions as belonging to more than just ourselves.

On All Souls Day, my mother used to watch with childlike nervousness to see if the dead would come back to life. But perhaps the real point is that the dead are always alive, speaking through us, giving to us as we give to them. We feed one another.

Published on November 2, 2023

Words by Quin Scott

Quin Scott is a writer, painter, and educator in the Pacific Northwest. They like reading, running, and making jokes with their friends.