My grandfather passed away recently after a slow fade due to Alzheimer’s disease. His memory and mind had long since receded into some earlier time before he knew any of us, and his ability to speak had eventually diminished to just a few words (many of them Norwegian, which was his first language, though he and even his parents were born in the United States).
Still, right up until the end, he was able to express his appreciation for the homemade cookies my grandmother brought to him in the nursing home on her daily visits: banana oatmeal cookies, ginger cookies, cornflake cookies, and others. He would eat them one after another, the way we always wanted to but were never allowed as kids. When you’re 88 years old, you enjoy certain privileges.
We knew death would not be far off when my mother came home from visiting him one afternoon and announced, “Well, this might be it. He wouldn’t even eat a gingersnap today.”
He slept away peacefully a couple of Saturdays ago, so I traveled back to Minnesota to join my family for celebrations of his life and memory. The funeral took place at the Lutheran church where he had sung tenor in the choir for decades. Afterwards, the church put out a classic Midwestern luncheon spread in its “Activity Room”—buckets of potato salad, pre-buttered rolls with ham, turkey and cheese, pickles, fruit salad, cake and coffee—then packed up the leftovers to send home with us. The pickle jar carried a large label with “Funerals” scrawled across it in permanent marker. Apparently nothing says “we feel your loss” like a bowl full of gherkins.
“Funeral cookies” are what my mother’s side of the family has always called a particular type of oatmeal butter cookie, silver-dollar sized mounds dusted with a whitecap of powdered sugar. They contain only six ingredients: butter, sugar, flour, oats, vanilla and salt. You form them into balls, flatten each one with your hand, and bake them for 10 minutes at 350°. Then you sprinkle them with powdered sugar as soon as you pull them from the oven.
Grandma says they got their nickname because they’re simple to make and only use ingredients most people have on hand in the pantry (or would have, when she was growing up). You could whip up a batch in 20 minutes and bring them over to someone who had lost a loved one as soon as you heard the news. They’re so easy and delicious that my family makes them for all sorts of occasions, from Christmas to picnics, but we call them funeral cookies no matter when they show up.
We sat for several hours in Grandma’s living room that afternoon, munching sweets, sipping coffee, looking through cards, sharing memories and, from time to time, crunching on a funeral pickle. In hindsight, it seems like a natural combination with which to mark the end of a life well-lived: mostly sweet, with just a hint of bitter.