François I died of illness on March 31, 1547, but that didn't prevent his courtiers from dining with him ever again. His meals were served to his effigy, as if he were still alive, for eleven days as part of an elaborate funeral ceremony rife with symbolic meaning.
François was not buried until May 22, as his successor, Henri II, wanted to combine his father's funeral with those of the king's two sons who had predeceased him and whose bodies had to be transported to Paris. This gap allowed for an elaborate ceremony to unfold.
Immediately after François's death, court painter François Clouet arrived to cast the king's death mask and to take measurements for his effigy. During the two weeks it took to fashion the effigy, the king's heart and entrails were removed and buried at the priory of Haut-Bruyère, a few miles from Rambouillet. His body was embalmed and taken to the palace of the cardinal-bishop of Paris at Saint-Cloud to await the arrival of the bodies of his sons.
The king's effigy was laid on a bed of state in the great hall at Saint-Cloud, which was hung with blue velvet and cloth of gold. Robert Knecht, in his excellent book The French Renaissance Court (Yale UP 2008), describes the scene thus:
[The effigy] wore the state robes, the collar of the Order of St. Michael, and the closed, imperial crown. On either side, on pillows, lay the sceptre and hand of justice. There was a canopy over the bed and, at its foot, a crucifix and holy-water stoop. Two heralds kept watch day and night, and offered the aspergillum to anyone wishing to sprinkle the effigy with holy water. Four candles provided the only illumination. Along the walls were benches for nobles and clerics, who attended the religious services and meals served to the effigy. These were the strangest parts of the ceremonial. For eleven days the king's meals were served as if he were still alive. His table was laid and the courses brought in and tasted. The napkin, used to wipe his hands, was presented by the steward to the most eminent person in attendance, and wine was served twice during each meal. At the end, grace was said by a cardinal. (p. 121; emphasis mine)
What was the purpose of these strange meals? Knecht's explanation is an interesting one. He links the meals to the French adage "le roi ne meurt jamais" ("the king never dies"), and explains that the monarch's dignitas, or authority, outlived his bodily presence. A king succeeded to the throne upon the death of his predecessor; he could exercise his authority from that moment, but he could not be seen to act as king until his predecessor had been buried. The effigy, along with the feigned meals, created the illusion that François was still alive pending his burial; the new king, Henri, effaced himself during that time so as not to destroy the illusion. As soon as the last meal was served on May 4, the effigy was removed and the salle d'honneur became a salle funèbre; black drapes replaced the blue and gold and the king's coffin was placed in the center of the hall. Henri appeared in public for the first time to sprinkle his father's body with holy water.
I can't help but wonder about the thoughts of the nobles and clerics who attended these pantomimed meals. Did they question the show, or were they respectful of its symbolism? Did they truly believe François still present? The entire ceremony (you can read Knecht's fascinating description of its various stages on pages 120-123) is a prime example of the extent to which the sixteenth-century mentality differed from modern sensibilities.