Death Cheese: A Short History

In life, three things are for certain: Birth, Death and Cheese. The greatest of these is cheese.

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149 Year Old Death/Funeral Cheese – Image: Molly McDonough

Parenting can be a terrifying and stressful road; I should know, I have several houseplants and once owned a guinea pig.

When preparing for the arrival of a baby, there are endless tips and tricks offered up to expectant parents. Everything from Feng Shui to crystals and specialist diets are pushed forwards as sure-fire ways to achieve a smooth pregnancy and a healthy child. Sadly, few of these contemporary ‘specialists’ suggest buying an enormous wheel of cheese.

In the 19thcentury, there was a growing interest in cataloguing the folk beliefs and superstitions of the UK. In these enormous tomes, everything from cattle protection to funeral etiquette is documented. While there was a wide interest in the varied history of the British Isles at the time, such books were generally published as pieces of light entertainment; coffee table books of mild amusement.

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Its thanks to these compendiums that the tradition of the Groaning Cheese has been preserved.

Food has featured widely in superstitions relating to life and death across the UK and Europe. In Denmark for example, it was customary for a mother to place a selection of amulets over the door of the baby’s room. These would include a cutting instrument made from steel (that’ll end well), salt, bread and garlic. Such a combination was believed to protect the child from evil spirits.

In Scotland, the treatment of food immediately after a death in the house was paramount. Aside from opening windows to allow the soul to escape, all foodstuffs had to be covered, filled or placed beside iron; this included drinks, especially whisky. According to the work of Cailleach’s Herbarium, this was enforced, ‘least death infect them and remove the “toradh” (fortune) from them. Iron is the same protective measure used to prevent the sidhe (good folk).’

 

However, of all foodstuffs, cheese is a reoccurring theme. In J Brand’s snappily-titled ‘Observations on the Popular Antiquities of Great Britain: Chiefly Illustrating the Origin of Our Vulgar and Provincial Customs, Ceremonies, and Superstitions’, he introduces the concept of a ‘Groaning Cheese’.

‘Against the time of the good wife’s delivery, it has been everywhere the custom for the husband to provide a large Cheese and a Cake.’

In a rather cruel reference to the mother’s pains in childbirth, ‘Groaning Cheese’ gained its name through the ‘mother’s complaints at her delivery.’

However, such provisions were not for the mother, and certainly not to be eaten by any of the family. The cheese, being a large wheel, was brought into the household following a birth and stored safely, until the child’s christening.

 

While the name of the cheese originated in the north of England, its usage spread countrywide. As recorded in an Oxfordshire,

‘It is customary to cut the Cheese in the middle when the child is born, and so by degrees form it into a large kind of ring, through which the child must be passed on the day of the christening.’

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Hence, the need for a rather large wheel of cheese. Pushing a child’s head through a Babybel is rather less dramatic and might not have the same desired effect.

 

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Owners of The Courtyard Dairy, Andy and Kathy Swinscoe re-enacting the tradition.

 

In other parts of England, the first cut of this cheese following the birth is chopped up into little bits and ‘tossed in the midwife’s smock’ in order to make young women dream of their lovers.

Another alternative from the north of England was to take the cheese from the first cut and place it under the pillows of young people; once again, to cause them to dream of their lovers.

 

Groaning Cake was another popular alternative, only made for the occasion of a birth and retained as a simple talisman afterwards, a little like the topper from a wedding cake. In Gayton’s 17thcentury work, ‘Pleasant Notes upon Don Quixot’, he records a woman who:

‘hath a piece of the groaning cake (as they call it) which she kept religiously with her Good Friday Bun, full forty years un-mouldy and un-mouse-eaten.’

There are many references to such a cake in many travel journals of the time which comment on the lack of a feast following a birth, but the importance placed upon a ‘certain cake.’.

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Cheese, however, was not just linked to birth. In Welsh funerals of the 18thcentury, before taking the body to the church,  it was customary to give a poor person of the parish some money, bread, drink and a cheese with a coin stuck in it.

In the Encyclopaedia of Superstitions, Folklore and Occult Sciences, a Scottish superstition is recorded that covers both ends of life. When a child was born, a cheese was made which remained untouched for the duration of their life and is first cut at the individual’s funeral. To accompany this, a local wealthy man will bring large amounts of wine, a glass of which is placed on the coffin. The wine within this is then referred to as ‘dead wine’, whereby,

‘the mourners approach, take the goblet in their hands, touch the coffin with it, and drink the contents to a future meeting with the departed.’

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Image: The Cotswold Cheese Company

In Macedonia, another folk belief was recorded whereby mourners at a funeral would eat pastry, bread and cheese, in order to dream of the deceased.

 

While the practise of keeping a cheese for your funeral has long passed, some rare examples of the practise still remain.

In the home of Jean-Jacques Zufferey in Grimentz, Switzerland, his basement is filled with racks of centuries-old cheese, withered and brittle from years of moisture loss.

The mountain village has a rich history of cheese production and are somewhat devoted to the world of dairy and their cows.

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Gastro Obscura visited Grimentz and interviewed the custodian of the village’s cheeses, whereby he spoke of his local traditions; traditions that sound not dissimilar to those of the UK.

‘In a historically poor area, “leaving enough” required advance planning. “There was the ‘cheese of the dead,’” explains Zufferey. “Everyone had a wheel of cheese so that they had something to serve at their funeral.” When the inevitable time came, the chiseled cheese was washed down with vin des glaciers, the local wine.’

Amazingly, the tradition of the cheeses was all but forgotten about by the community and by Zuffrey’s family. That was until his grandmother died in 1944 and his father found two old wheels of cheese in her basement. Thankfully, they were preserved and over time, the family added more wheels, building a large collection and preserving a long-dead tradition.

 

As sure as night follows day and death follows birth, cheese will be there. Watching. Waiting. Maturing.

 

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Other References/Further Reading:

Encyclopaedia of Superstitions, Folklore and Occult Sciences – (c.1903)

‘Observations on the Popular Antiquities of Great Britain: Chiefly Illustrating the Origin of Our Vulgar and Provincial Customs, Ceremonies, and Superstitions’ – Henry Ellis (c.1853)

New Baby? Get Some “Groaning Cheese”!

https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/most-unusual-cheese-switzerland

https://cailleachs-herbarium.com/2017/10/scottish-folk-magic-and-the-dead-part-one-funerary-customs-and-death-related-lore/

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