Friday, February 11, 2011

Questions for Curatorial - Decent Burial

A visitor indicated that the wake process that we talk about on “The Moores” tour was called a "decent burial." The idea was that no matter how poor you were, your last obligation was to provide whiskey and good tobacco for your friends to thank them for mourning you. So even if it put you in debt, you would buy the top-shelf stuff to thank your true friends for their attention during your deathIs this true?

Moore Apartment exhibit, Photograph by Keiko Niwa, Courtesy of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum
Yes. During the 19th century, Irish immigrant families would sometimes go into debt providing a wake and burial for their relatives and loved ones. Both the wake and burial represented important passages in the life of an individual, ensuring that they had a good “send off” and were prepared for the “next life.” While the definition of what comprised a “decent” wake and burial appears to have varied, the responsibility for its provision fell upon the family of the deceased and not on the recently departed themselves. Indeed, although the specific customs of the wake varied depending on the region of origin, the provision of food, drink, and tobacco appear to have been customary throughout Irish America and part of what constituted a “decent” wake and burial.

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