What is a Dumb Supper?
Hosting a “dumb supper” sounds a little insulting, but the term actually refers to a meal held in silence.
This solemn, formal ritual takes the form of a dinner to honor the dead, especially those deceased in the last year, or for those ancestral spirits to whom the participants wish to show special reverence.
Where and how the dumb supper originated seems to be a point of historical contention. Some sources claim the tradition descended from a similar practice in the Ozarks. Some say it came from the Appalachian mountains.
Either way, neopagans adopted the dumb supper to celebrate Samhain, the Sabbat on the Wheel of the Year best known for its association with spirits of the dead.
The Joy of Celebrating a Life Well Lived
Rituals like the dumb supper may seem odd or cryptic to the casual observer. But finding meaningful ways to acknowledge our silent thoughts and feelings about this subject helps.
Death—-both our own, and the death of those we love—is arguably the very hardest part of life.
Often, we sweep it into a quiet part of our soul and let cobwebs collect. Sometimes, we mourn for decades alone.
Samhain is the season to drag out our grief and air the darkness with people who care about us.
Invitations and Favors
(Please note: This section contains affiliate links for your convenience. It’s standard industry practice and it’s really no big deal, but the FTC got their panties in a wad about it a few years ago and now we all have to bore you with super bland disclaimers about it).
There’s lots of creative ways to raise the vibes of your dumb supper!
For example, design your invitations and favors around your theme. Be creative. Strike a balance between solemness and festivity.
Try death-themed table favors, like these little wood coffins, painted and filled with grown-up treats (bourbon balls, anyone?)
Or, use an obituary template to design your invitations.
Speaking of invitations, think through who you want to include.
I generally encourage the participation of pagan children in ritual. But this one might best be suited for adults and older teens. Death can be a confusing topic for kids. And expecting small children to remain silent for 30 or 40 minutes isn’t especially realistic.
Setting the Table
The key feature of a dumb supper is at the head of the table. It’s here that you set a place for the deceased.
Come up with a unique way to represent the “guest of honor.”
A simple photograph works.
Or, represent the departed with symbols of things that brought them joy in life. For example, place a copy of Anna Karenina on the chair for your grandfather who loved Russian lit, or a pair of zills for the aunt who spent decades mastering the art of belly dance.
You may honor one specific person.
Or, you may symbolically set the head of the table for several “guests of honor.” Instead of choosing an object, distinguish the departed by choosing a candle to represent each one in a color they loved in life.
Much of the appeal of this tradition comes down to the atmosphere, so create one with a sense of mystery!
Black candles, black tableware and even black cocktails contribute to a surreal, super-charged space.
Turn off the electric lights and rely on lantern or candle light. Some people believe that unnatural light interferes with spirit communication. Even if you don’t, it helps to create an eerie, mystical vibe.
At the very least, turn off anything with a screen.
What to Serve
There are so many creative ways to choose a menu for a Dumb Supper, I can think of more than I’ll ever get around to trying.
Here’s one: serve only black food.
Or, plan a meal based on your deceased grandmother’s recipe for coq au vin.
If you like farm-to-table, stay local, seasonal and fresh.
Anything traditionally served at Mabon also works well for a dumb supper.
The Intensity of Silence
Be sure to explain well in advance that dinner will be attended in silence.
The quiet serves to heighten the senses and cue the attendees into the invisible world.
Set the table in such a way that everything is self-explanatory. For example, it’s quieter and requires less non-verbal communication to simply have the plates already dressed and portioned, rather than to pass around communal bowls of food.
(On that note, make sure to ask ahead of time about allergies and dietary requirements. When people serve themselves, they can pick and choose, but if you plan the meal and end up sticking a hunk of meat on a vegan’s plate . . . that’s awkward).
Typically, social events make us anxious if they aren’t filled with constant chatter.
But there’s something weirdly relaxing about attending a ritual where no words are necessary. You notice other things you’d ordinarily miss. Subtle gestures and expressions magnify our inner world when observed without words.
It’s an experience you won’t soon forget!
Sending Messages to the Departed
Whether you personally believe in an afterlife, or you simply want to let go of something you’ve always wanted to say to a lost loved one, this is an ideal occasion to express yourself.
While some articles suggest writing messages and burning them indoors in a cauldron, this seems extremely impractical to me.
Consider burning your papers in a bonfire outdoors afterwards.
Not only is it a great excuse to roast your tootsies by an autumn fireside, it’s also a great time to break the silence, pour some after-dinner drinks and share memories of lost loved ones.
Before you set your message ablaze, fold in some cinnamon or other Samhain herbs, or anoint your paper with an essential oil associated with the season (ginger, cloves, ect).
It’s also a perfect opportunity to read tarot cards for your guests. The thin veil between worlds offers an ideal environment for sensitivity in the sixth sense. Leave a deck on the table and let everyone draw a card for a departed loved one.