14 September 2016

Acadian funeral rites, mourning explored at New Brunswick Museum

While spooky, subject matter in exhibit is intended to spur thought-provoking discussion

By Julia Wright, CBC News

Not long ago, Maritimers confronted death "more frequently in their daily lives," said Deborah Robichaud, guest curator of the exhibit Always Loved, Never Forgotten: Death and Mourning in Acadia.

The exhibit opening Thursday at the New Brunswick Museum encompasses funeral rites, death announcements, mourning apparel and embalming, as well as "the elaborate traditions around mass, hearses, the cultural role of the cemetery and tombstone design," said Robichaud.

The subject matter, while dark, is key to preserving for posterity Acadian end-of-life traditions that would otherwise fall into obscurity.

"There was a big change in customs with the advent of cremation, and we were in danger of losing touch with the older traditions," said Robichaud.

Evolving funeral rites

The collection was developed by the Musée Acadien and late last year, the New Brunswick Museum's conservator, Dee Stubbs-Lee, did some conservation work on a piece central to the display — a memento mori.

One piece, believed to have been made in a Prince Edward Island convent, incorporates locks of hair from family members into a floral border and the image of a weeping willow leaning over a grave marker.

Another memento mori — an object kept as a reminder of the inevitability of death, such as a skull — is a large wax cross that belonged to a family in Caraquet. It incorporates the hair of two dozen deceased family members. The piece was restored with assistance from the New Brunswick Museum.

"We don't have a lot of pieces with hair worked in," says Musée Acadien curator Jeanne Mance Cormier. "Something this elegant was a surprise to us. It's something we haven't seen before in Acadian culture."

"We celebrate life when people pass away differently than we did in the past," said Cormier. She said in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, "You have a bit of superstition, but you also have respect for the person who passed away."

Post-mortem photos

Visitors to the exhibit can also flip through albums of post-mortem photos — images captured of loved ones after death. Such photos, Robichaud explains, were commonplace before photography became ubiquitous. Often, such images would be the only surviving images of a loved one.

"The traditions around death have been really sanitized," she said. "People don't die in their homes anymore. They mostly die in hospitals, and the remains are removed and cremated. So not everyone gets a chance to see that someone has passed away and create that finality."

In addition to capturing Acadian end-of-life traditions, the object of the exhibit is also to spur important conversations.

"One of the things that museum exhibitions should do is get people talking," said Cormier.

As visitors leave the collection, they can cast an anonymous vote with a marble for an urn, or a coffin. She said many Moncton museum-goers said the exhibit allowed them to discuss end-of-life issues they'd never previously talked about with their family.

"Death is such a great finality. We all experience it. But I wanted to look at the intricacies of Acadian culture, and at Catholicism, because they are intertwined," said Robichaud. "We wanted to capture some of these traditions before they were completely lost."

Always Loved, Never Forgotten: Death and Mourning in Acadia opens at the New Brunswick Museum tomorrow evening with an event scheduled from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.