COLLATION: a light meal

A couple of weeks ago a clergy friend was talking about a funeral at which she had officiated.   She mentioned that there was no collation after the funeral.  I have used that word to describe a funeral reception for years, but … not having heard it for some time … it struck me as odd. 

“Why is a funeral reception called a collation?” I asked myself.

I began to research the word and discovered that the primary use of the word (in today’s American English, anyway) is related to the act of collatingCollating is that function you perform when you gather up pages upon which you have been working and place them in the correct order.  Maybe you staple them, or maybe they go into a folder, but the important thing is that they are in the correct sequence.

How strange, then, that the word collation is used to identify a small meal.  In this case, it is a small meal offered as a social time for those who have attended a funeral.    I suppose I can stretch my imagination a little and say that it is a “collecting together” of the people who, for any number of reasons, have come to attend a funeral.   Some come for very personal, familial reasons; others because the deceased person was a colleague, neighbor, friend, or just a person of interest.   Perhaps it is in the collation that this gets sorted out.

Traditionally, the close family stands in a receiving line, greeting those attending, and thanking them for coming.  The more distant relatives are somewhere in the background, often being dragged over to the line to be introduced to an old nanny, school teacher, barber, or someone who played a significant role in the family’s life many years ago (and is unrecognizable today!)

Others gather in small groups according to their connection; some just stand alone.   The collation is supposed to bind them into one group, although there is the frequent black sheep of the family who doesn’t want to stand with the family or interact with them.  (Such gatherings are not always what they are cracked up to be!)  But the point I would make is that there is some form of “sorting” taking place, much as in the act of collating papers into some order.

Sometimes families choose to have a private collation at someone’s home or in a restaurant.   A few close friends may be invited, but for the most part it is relatives who attend such an event.  Again, it’s not always a chipper gathering.   The will hasn’t been read yet, so there’s a lot of suspicion and posturing that can take place.  But I’ve attended collations that are private which are warm, sensitive, and fulfill the purpose: they eventually end in light talk, even laughter.   The sadness is dispersed and a sense of “normality” is resumed.  It feels good to be a part of those gatherings.

Collations are frequently hosted by a committee from the religious institution at which the funeral has been held.   If there is a proper gathering hall, or formal living room at the facility, traditional collation foods are laid out and ready when the funeral ends.  Maybe there is even a bottle or two of wine, depending upon the predilections of the congregation.   There can be great pride among the members of a congregation when a collation is successful and people experience hospitality.  ( I’ve also attended some where re-heated coffee and frozen packages of chocolate chip cookies and weepy deviled eggs are the fare and they are still on the serving plates when the guests depart.)

This posting isn’t going anyplace.  I have no clever political segues to introduce.  No personal commentary about a recently-departed friend or relative.   I just thought the word was interesting and it might be fun to check it out.  Enjoy.

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  1. Thanks for the additional usage, Madeleine. I can picture that scene!

  2. Madeleine says:

    when in the ‘nunnery’ years ago we had ‘collation’ every afternoon at 3 pm…a light snack to hold over ’til supper

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  4. I saw this term associated with a funeral in a novel, which was set in New England. I thought it might be a regional term. We are a little more celtic influenced in the west, possibly. This is a wake to us.

  5. John Adavonia says:

    Thanks for posting this. I was looking this up because I recently went to one of these receptions, and said to a few folks “At the collation…” and they looked at me with blank stares. I’m Catholic, is it a Catholic thing, or just generally Christian?

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