Fact Check

Ashes Mistaken for Food

Family mistakenly eats remains of cremated relative?

Published July 3, 1999


Legend:   A foreign family unknowingly consumes the ashes of a relative shipped to them for burial.

Example:   [De Vos, 1996]

When the family moved to North America, they kept in constant touch with their European relatives. Letters and parcels regularly made their way from one shore to another. After a long period of silence, a small box arrived from the U.S. Inside, carefully wrapped in tissue paper, was a jar of grey powder. There was no note, but since many of the previous parcels had contained ready-to-make packaged mixes, the European family members thought that this powder, too, was a mix that would be prepared by simply adding water. The sauce was made and served, but it wasn't the best they had eaten! Several days later, a letter arrived from the U.S. explaining that the father had died, and because he had always been homesick, he wished his ashes to be spread over his home town. Grandma hoped that the rest of the family would not be inconvenienced and that the letter would get to them before the ashes, which were being sent separately in a jar and were securely wrapped in tissue paper.


  • The relative's remains are usually shipped in an urn mistaken for an ordinary jar by the recipients, but in many versions of this legend the confusion is caused by the ashes' having been packaged in some sort of makeshift container such as a small box or a re-used food container such as a cocoa tin.
  • The food item for which the remains are mistaken varies: an instant drink; a condiment, spice, or sauce mix (generally served with meat), flour (baked into bread or cake), powdered soup, or even dried coconut.
  • The explanatory letter does not arrive in time because it is mailed separately several days after the ashes are shipped (sometimes due to post office regulations that prevent letters from being sent inside packages), or because it is posted at the same time as the package but gets delayed in transit. Other versions feature an identifying letter that accompanies the remains but is written in a foreign language, and the family eats the remains before the letter is translated.

Origins:   This

Cartoon of the legend

tale has circulated both as a legend and as a joke, and it features several themes common to both: unwitting consumption of a disgusting substance, disaster caused by unfamiliarity with modern technology, and humorous mishaps initiated by unsophisticated ethnic "rubes." It was widespread in the years just after the end of World War II, when European families in war-torn areas commonly received food shipments from relatives (and powdered food products were fairly new). The two main variants of this story involve a relative in an English-speaking country (e.g., Canada, Australia, the United States) shipping home the ashes of a family member who fled Britain to escape the war, or a relative in America sending the remains of an immigrant family member back to a country in continental Europe. (The former version incorporates the delayed letter; the latter features the note requiring translation.)

As folklorist Charles Clay Doyle has noted, this legend is similar to a grim bit of anti-semitic humor dating from the Renaissance, in which an Italian Jew attempts to smuggle the corpse of a friend home to Venice for burial (an illegal act at the time) by packing the dismembered body in a jar with spices and honey. During the boat trip back to Italy, a gentile passenger mistakes the substance in the jar for a delicacy and eats portions of it.

Sightings:   This legend forms the plot of a 1972 one-act play by Pat Wilson titled Funeral Tea.

Last updated:   21 February 2009

Sources Sources:

    Brunvand, Jan Harold.   The Baby Train.

    New York: W. W. Norton, 1993.   ISBN 0-393-31208-9   (pp. 75-79).

    Brunvand, Jan Harold.   The Choking Doberman.

    New York: W. W. Norton, 1984.   ISBN 0-393-30321-7   (pp. 114-115).

    Brunvand, Jan Harold.   Too Good To Be True.

    New York: W. W. Norton, 1999.   ISBN 0-393-04734-2   (pp. 198-199).

    Brunvand, Jan Harold.   The Vanishing Hitchhiker.

    New York: W. W. Norton, 1981.   ISBN 0-393-95169-3   (p. 117).

    Bryson, Bill.   The Blook of Bunders (Bizarre World).

    Great Britain: Sphere Books Ltd., 1982.

    Dale, Rodney.   The Tumour in the Whale.

    London: Duckworth, 1978.   ISBN 0-7156-1314-6   (pp. 41-42).

    de Vos, Gail.   Tales, Rumors and Gossip.

    Englewood: Libraries Unlimited, 1996.   ISBN 1-56308-190-3   (pp. 88 & 149).

    Domowitz, Susan.   "Foreign Matter in Food: A Legend Type."

    Indiana Folklore.   1979:12   (pp. 86-95).

    Smith, Paul.   The Book of Nasty Legends.

    London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1983.   ISBN 0-00-636856-5   (p. 106).

  Sources Also told in:

    Fiery, Ann.   The Complete and Totally True Book of Urban Legends.

    Philadelphia: Running Press Books, 2001.   ISBN 0-7624-107404   (pp. 68-71).

    Healey, Phil and Rick Glanvill.   Now! That's What I Call Urban Myths.

    London: Virgin Books, 1996.   ISBN 0-86369-969-3   (pp. 226-227).

    Holt, David and Bill Mooney.   Spiders in the Hairdo.

    Little Rock: August House, 1999.   ISBN 0-87483-525-9   (p. 76).

The Big Book of Urban Legends.

    New York: Paradox Press, 1994.   ISBN 1-56389-165-4   (p. 71).

David Mikkelson founded the site now known as snopes.com back in 1994.

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