Cemeteries and Burials
Cemeteries and Burials
One of the most direct and unaltered visual manifestations of the African influence on the culture of African Americans in the United States is found in the social behaviors associated with funerals. In many rural graveyards across the South, and in quite a few urban cemeteries in the North and Far West, too, black Americans mark the final resting places of their loved ones in a distinctive manner. While they use standardized stone markers and floral arrangements, the personal property of the deceased is frequently placed on the grave as well. Sometimes a single emblematic item, such as a glass pitcher or vase, sits atop the mounded earth, while in other places a grave may be covered with a veritable inventory of the dead person's household goods.
In addition to glass and ceramic containers (which might also serve as holders for flowers), one may also find cups, saucers, clocks, salt-and-pepper shakers, spoons, toothbrushes, lightbulbs, soap dishes, flashlights, razors, toys, cigar boxes, false teeth, marbles, and piggy banks. Such material assemblages do not merely contrast with the usual Euro-American ideal of a sedate cemetery landscape; they establish a link to customary practices known not only on southern plantations but in West and Central Africa.
In 1843 the daughter of a Georgia planter recalled that "Negro graves were always decorated with the last article used by the departed, and broken pitchers and broken bits of colored glass were considered even more appropriate than the white shells from the beach nearby. Sometimes they carved rude wooden figures like images of idols, and sometimes a patchwork quilt was laid upon the grave." This antebellum scene not only matches much of what can be found today in black graveyards but could be substituted for descriptions of African practice as well. E. J. Glave, who traveled through Zaire in 1884, wrote that "the natives mark the final resting-places of their friends by ornamenting their graves with crockery, empty bottles, old cooking pots, and so on, all of which articles are rendered useless by being cracked or penetrated with holes."
Another traveler in nearby Gabon observed, "Over or near the graves of the rich are built little huts, where are laid the common articles used by them in their life—pieces of crockery, knives, sometimes a table, mirrors, and other goods obtained in foreign trade." While the stability of these behaviors across such lengthy spans of time and space might at first seem astonishing, it must be recalled that funerary customs were one of the few areas of black life into which slave owners tended not to intrude. Thus, in spite of the massive conversion of Africans to Christian faiths, they retained many of their former rituals associated with the veneration of the dead.
They remembered, for example, that the spirit of the deceased person might linger near the body for a period of time before moving to the spirit world. Believing further that the needs of the spirit are similar to those of a living human, they maintained the belief that the potential fury of an individual's spirit could be soothed by presenting it with the various items that the individual had used while alive. One resident of the Georgia Sea Islands testified, "I don't guess you be bother much the spirits if you give-em a good funeral and put the things what belong to 'em on top of the grave." Another added, "Spirits need these [things] same as the man. Then the spirit rest and don't wander." Statements from other Deep South black communities support this belief in the lingering spirit and warn that "unless you bury a person's things with him, he will come back after them." Left unsaid here is a more threatening corollary belief that roaming spirits can exact a further toll; they could, if disturbed, cause another person's death.
Placing personal items on graves is, then, more than an emotional gesture aimed at providing the bereaved with the ritual means to reconnect with a loved one (although this behavior does indeed serve that function). For those who retain the African-derived belief in a soul with two parts—one that travels immediately to the afterworld and one that lingers for a while near the body—the burial mounds that bristle with bowls, lamps, mirrors, plaster statues, and other hardware not only keep the deceased at rest but contribute to the physical well-being of the community. However, for those African Americans whose beliefs are derived from a more orthodox Christian position, the vessels placed atop burial mounds (often broken just slightly) are explained simply as metaphors of death, and such proverbs as "The pitcher that goes often to the well shall at last be broken" are cited as a plausible rationale for their use as grave decorations.
In addition to personal objects, some African-American graves in the South are decorated with white seashells and pebbles. These suggest a watery environment at the bottom of either the ocean or a lake or river. While some might see the allusion to water as derived from the Christian association of water with salvation (as in the sacrament of baptism), these objects are more likely signs of the remembrance of African custom. In Kongo belief (in South Carolina, nearly 40 percent of all slaves imported between 1733 and 1807 were from the Kongo-speaking region), the world of the dead is understood to lie not only underground but also underwater. This place is the realm of the bakulu, creatures whose white color marks them as deceased. Shells and stones signal the boundary of this realm, which can be reached only by penetrating beneath two physical barriers. Their whiteness, moreover, recalls that at least in Central Africa, white, not black, is the color of death. Also found in black cemeteries are a number of other features traceable to Kongo sources: pipes driven into burial mounds to serve as speaking tubes that may allow beneficial communication with the deceased, statues of chickens that recall animal sacrifices offered to the deceased, and mirrors that are said to catch the flashing light of a spirit and hold it there. Any of these features alone might indicate only the action of a single imagination engaged in the task of decorating a loved one's final resting place. But when several occur together, as is so often the case in graveyards of the black Sea Islanders of South Carolina and Georgia, we have powerful evidence of allegiance to a venerable African tradition.
In the light of these signs (all of which may be interpreted as elements of cultural continuity), it is not surprising that black burial sites in the Bay Area of California should resemble those seen in South Carolina. When given the opportunity, any people will carry its heartfelt customs from place to place as indispensable cultural baggage. Nor is it strange that a Mr. Coffee machine should turn up in a black cemetery in Mississippi. Among the more tradition-minded of the African-American faithful, the significance of a modern-day coffeemaker in a graveyard is very clear: "Spirits need these same as the man."
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Nichols, Elaine. The Last Miles of the Way: African-American Homegoing Traditions, 1890–Present. Columbia, S.C.: South Carolina State Museum, 1989.
Nigh, Robin F. "Under Grave Conditions: African-American Signs of Life and Death in North Florida." Markers 14 (1997): 158–189.
Puckett, Newbell Niles. The Magic and Folk Beliefs of the Southern Negro. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1926.
Thompson, Robert Farris, and Joseph Cornet. The Four Moments of the Sun: Kongo Art in Two Worlds. Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 1981.
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Vlach, John Michael. The Afro-American Tradition in Decorative Arts (1978). Reprint, Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1990.
john michael vlach (1996)
Updated by author 2005