‘Everything on This Table Has Mayonnaise.’ Funeral Food Stands Tall Against Change

By James R. Hagerty

When someone dies in Tabor, Minn., Cheryl Novak knows what to do.

“I make my bean hotdish because it’s a goer,” Ms. Novak says. It contains hamburger, bacon, kidney beans, butter beans, Bush’s baked beans, ketchup, brown sugar, mustard, vinegar and onions finely minced so people who don’t like onions won’t notice them.

“The secret part of mine—not everybody does it because of the fat—is I’ll throw in the bacon grease,” she says.

Comfort food

Ms. Novak, a registered nurse, has volunteered to make funeral lunches at her church, Holy Trinity, for decades. Usually served after the church service, the lunches are a time-honored balm for grieving families, giving them a chance to linger over comfort food with relatives and friends. They conform with a Beatitude from the Book of Matthew. “Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.”

Armed with deviled eggs, fried chicken and Jell-O, church volunteers are defending their turf against the forces of change.

In recent years, many churches have outsourced the work to professional caterers—in part due to fears of running afoul of food-hygiene regulations or other food-safety issues.

At Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in Columbia Heights, a Minneapolis suburb, grieving families are advised to hire certified caterers. Or, says Vicki Bazille, pastoral minister at the church, “they can go to Costco, Sam’s Club or a deli and pick up anything that’s packaged, and our volunteers can serve it.” She cites guidance from the church’s insurers.

Tony Black, owner of Brown Brothers Catering in Salt Lake City and Provo, Utah, has seen increasing demand for catered funeral meals. Rather than going with the homey staples, he says, more people now want “something that’s just a little bit higher end,” such as chef-carved beef.

Volunteers set up a meal at St. Margaret Mary Catholic Parish in Omaha. PHOTO: JENNIFER VARNER

Jim Carmichael, an undertaker in Smyrna, Ga., says one family wanted a “Margaritaville theme” for the post-funeral meal, featuring Corona beer and finger foods.

Some mourners move their meals to restaurants because they seek comfort in items not usually served by church volunteers, such as alcohol. “They want to make it more of a party or a celebration of life,” says Charlene Pagenkopf, head of the funeral volunteers at Holy Ghost Parish in Chippewa Falls, Wis.

At the same time, many of the volunteers, mostly women, are aging out. “I lose one per month” to the infirmities of age, she estimates. Others say they don’t have time. “Everybody’s got an excuse.”

A Holy Ghost Parish meal typically includes scalloped potatoes, turkey or ham, and Ms. Pagenkopf’s own coleslaw, “doctored up” with apple chunks, chopped onion and Craisins. The volunteers set up a dessert table with at least five choices.

“I don’t want to say we have the best [funeral] menu in town, but we’re right up there,” Ms. Pagenkopf says.

Today’s picky eaters have proved to be a challenge for Mary Frank Wingate of Quitman, Ga., who organizes volunteers from her local United Methodist Church to make funeral food. Deviled eggs, among the classic offerings, are no longer a sure bet.

Cheryl Novak’s bean hotdish includes bacon. See below for her recipe. PHOTO: JAMES R. HAGERTY/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

She recalls a funeral meal where “one of the people looked at the table and said, ‘Do those eggs have mayonnaise in them?’ I said, ‘Yes, they do.’ He said, ‘I don’t eat mayonnaise.’ I wanted to tell him, ‘Well, your supper is over because everything on this table has mayonnaise in it.’ ”

Peggy Webb, a church secretary at Bellevue Baptist in Macon, Ga., has noticed no diminution of interest in her deviled eggs. “People love deviled eggs,” she says. She makes them so often that “people here at Bellevue call me the deviled-egg lady.” Her version includes sweet pickle relish along with mustard and mayonnaise.

Fried chicken is standard at Bellevue Baptist funeral lunches. “In the South, that’s pretty much the church food,” says Jim Duggan, pastor of the church. “We call it the gospel bird.”

To go with it, volunteers provide potato salad, coleslaw, baked beans, fresh greens, macaroni and cheese and rutabagas. “Then, of course, you have your butter beans and your peas,” Ms. Webb says.

At the First Baptist Church in Lodi, Calif., Jell-O salads remain a popular choice for funeral meals. Iris Maier, who heads the church’s funeral lunch ministry, makes Jell-O blended with yogurt and cream. “Another girl puts strawberries in hers and layers in whipped cream,” Ms. Maier says. “It’s delicious.”

Preparing food for grieving families is “our mission, our ministry,” she says. “We love comforting people, and we do it with food.”

Jennifer Varner, who coordinates volunteers at the St. Margaret Mary Catholic Parish in Omaha, says they make salads and a cheesy potato casserole. Sometimes she buys baked ham from Sam’s Club. “We slice and prepare it with pineapple slices and cloves to kind of snazz it up a bit,” she says.

Funeral food provided by volunteers “just seems more friendly” than something brought in from a caterer or a deli, says Ms. Novak of Tabor, who won first prize in a funeral-casserole contest organized by local funeral directors six years ago.

Her whole family gets involved in cooking for church functions. Her sons built a meat smoker for the church. “They call it the holy smoker,” Ms. Novak says. Some people, she suspects, attend funerals mainly for the lunch.


What’s your preferred funeral meal? 

I am thankful to Rita Flickinger for leading this important ministry. At Chapel Hill, we do a lot of funerals and we know what works and what doesn’t. We never charge a family even though some insist on a donation to help pay for the expense, but it is never expected. It is a ministry of comfort, care, and hospitality when our families need “God with skin on,” as the saying goes. 

If you would like to be a part of this ministry, either through providing food, or serving food, please contact Rita Flickinger at flicka4@me.com  


  1. A lot of fried chicken is served in Great Bend, with church ladies donating sides, salads and desserts!

    Comment by Sharon Anglemyer on November 5, 2019 at 3:04 pm

  2. Would be glad to provide food or help if we are not traveling.

    Comment by Linda Phillips on November 6, 2019 at 12:27 pm