Death and Funeral Customs

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Death and Funeral Customs

Life for slaves was never easy, but for those living and working on large cotton plantations, conditions were harsh and unusually brutal. While some slaveholders treated their charges fairly and with a modicum of respect, they were the exception and not the rule. On other homesteads, despotic owners and overseers relished in their dominion over dozens and sometimes even hundreds of slaves, and threatened their existence on a daily basis. Death was not uncommon, and like any so-called property that became worn out or damaged, slaves were either sold or left to die when they outlived their usefulness. They were expendable, a fact few were ever allowed to forget.

Death: Violent or Otherwise

In the best of circumstances, slaves were considered valuable property and treated accordingly. Their value was tied to their productivity, and healthy slaves were productive slaves. Slave owners who believed it was their Christian duty to teach their slaves about religion often took better care of their charges than others. They saw that they had ample food, clothing, housing, and medical care. Medical care was usually based on a slave's stature within the household; personal servants, breeders, wet nurses, and cooks were given far better care—medical and otherwise—than field hands. For privileged slaves, illnesses and injuries were treated by white doctors who would either visit slave quarters or have ailing slaves brought to the porch of their owner's house.


In May 1991, plans to erect a thirty-four-story office tower in New York City were disrupted by a compelling archaeological finding. An excavation of the site located at Broadway and Duane Streets in lower Manhattan unearthed more than 400 human skeletal remains and a vast array of burial artifacts that indicated their owner's African heritage. This site, now known as the African Burial Ground, provides critical insights into the funeral customs of enslaved people of African descent in eighteenth-century New York and demonstrates the tremendous resilience of enslaved people to preserve African traditions and rituals.

Artifacts discovered at the African Burial Ground indicate the persistence of African cosmologies and customs in both life and death. Among the artifacts is a coffin featuring an Ashanti-influenced heart-shaped design known as a Sankofa rendered on the lid with nails. Filing patterns on the front teeth of many were identified as consistent with a rite of passage among adolescent children in many parts of West and Central Africa. Moreover, a string of blue, green, and white glass beads was discovered on the remains of a young woman. Worn around the waist, these beads represented a passage over water in the afterlife, possibly back home to Africa. Others, consistent with African burial practices, were wrapped in cloth and adorned with cowrie shells. Taken together, these archaeological findings demonstrate the ongoing importance of African practices in the funeral customs of enslaved people of African descent.


Blakey, Michael L. "The New African Burial Ground Project: An Examination of Enslaved Lives, a Construction of Ancestral Ties." Transforming Anthropology 7, no. 1 (1998).

Laroche, Cheryl J., and Michael L. Blakey. "Seizing Intellectual Power: The Dialogue at the New York African Burial Ground." Historical Archaeology 31, no. 3 (Fall 1997).

Field hands, who lived under the most severe conditions and were the backbone of most plantations, were mostly cared for by other slaves. Actual medical training was generally nil; remedies were homemade from plants and herbs, tinged with superstition and folklore, sometimes even voodoo. Unfortunately for female slaves, many died during and after childbirth, usually in two extremes—the young (those barely into their teens) and the middle-aged, who had given birth to many children, often as many as fifteen or more.

Far more slaves died from injuries suffered during punishment than from illness. They were punished for many infractions, large and small—including talking back, being late, not working fast enough, taking time off (without permission or a pass), drinking too much (whether water or alcohol), stealing, or running away. Punishment ranged from beatings, whippings, being bound and dragged over logs, hanging by the thumbs or wrists for lesser crimes, to death for crimes considered more serious. Death could be by hanging, burning at the stake, being torn apart by hounds, beating, or simply disappearing.

In addition to injury, illness, and the whims of their slaveholders, slaves also faced the wrath of roaming gangs—aimless bushwhackers with no affiliation of any kind, neighboring whites with a grudge, or in the later years, the Ku Klux Klan. As Stephen McCray, a slave born in Huntsville County, Alabama, who worked on the McCray plantation near Scottsboro, commented: "Bushwhackers, nothin' but po' white trash, come thoo' and killed all the little nigger chillums they could lay hands on. I was hid under the house with a big rag in my mouf many a time" (Born in Slavery, Oklahoma Narratives, vol. 13, p. 209).

Funerals and Burial

On some homesteads, funerals were considered a waste of time, time when slaves could be harvesting crops, milking cows, or performing any number of daily chores. When slaves died—whether of illness, injury, or old age—many were buried with little or no fanfare. As Octavia George, a slave who lived most of her life in Tennessee and relocated to Oklahoma after the war, commented, "Funerals were very simple for slaves, they could not carry the body to the church so they would carry it to the graveyard and bury it. They were not allowed to sing a song at the cemetery" (Born in Slavery, Oklahoma Narratives, vol. 13, p. 113).

More beneficent owners gave their slaves small funeral services and proper burials. Mintie Wood, who was born in Tennessee and worked most of her life in Arkansas for the Gilbert family, talked of her owner's practices: "… [H]e had so many of his family and darkies, too, he has his own graveyard where every one of us, black or white dat ever been in de Gilbert family can be buried without costing us a penny" (Born in Slavery, Missouri Narratives, vol. 10, p. 375).

Some funerals were massive affairs in the same custom of the slaveholders themselves and their families. Slaves who were considered part of the family (and many were, being the sons and daughters of their so-called masters), were often given lavish funerals and buried on plantation property. As Cordelia Thomas, a slave born and raised in Georgia, related:

When somebody did die, folkses come from miles and miles around for de buryin.' Dey give de slaves de same sort of funeral de white folkses had. De corpses was washed good all over in hot water and home-made soap, den dey was dressed and laid out on de coolin' boards til the carpenter man had time to make up de coffins. (Born in Slavery, Georgia Narratives, vol. 4, part 4, p. 20)

Such celebrations were not the norm, but allowed slaves to be buried with dignity. For these lucky souls the funeral process was respectful, often followed by a specially prepared dinner, drinking, and sometimes dancing. Most all of the homestead's slaves were able to attend, and the slave-holding family ate and drank alongside them for this particular day or evening.


Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936–1938. Manuscript and Prints and Photographs Divisions, Library of Congress. Georgia Narratives, volume 4, part 4. Available from

Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936–1938. Manuscript and Prints and Photographs Divisions, Library of Congress. Missouri Narratives, volume 10. Available from

Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936–1938. Manuscript and Prints and Photographs Divisions, Library of Congress. Oklahoma Narratives, volume 13. Available from

                                        Nelson Rhodes