A Closer Look: The Tradition of African-American Burials
One of the most direct and unaltered visual manifestations of African influence on the culture of African-Americans in the United States is found in the social behaviors centered on funerals.
In many rural graveyards across the South and many urban cemeteries in the North and far West, Black Americans mark final resting places of loved ones in a distinctive manner. While standard markers or floral arrangements are used, the personal property of the deceased is often placed atop the grave; these range from things like a single emblematic item such as a pitcher or vase, to an inventory of the dead person’s household goods. One can find clocks, cups, saucers, toothbrushes, marbles, piggy banks, and more. Such material assemblages more than contrast to the usual Euro-American ideal of burial landscape; they establish a connection to customs and practices known not only on Southern plantations in the United States, but also in West and Central Africa.
Documents printed in 1843 show that Negro graves in Georgia were always decorated with the last article used by the departed. Historians traveling throughout Zaire in 1884 noted that natives marked the final resting places of their friends by ornamenting graves with old cooking pots and other household goods, all of which were made useless by penetrating them with holes. Another traveler in nearby Gabon observed that over or near the graves of the rich were built small huts, where are laid the common articles used by the deceased during life—pieces of cookery, knives, and sometimes a table.
During early American slavery, funeral customs were one of the few areas of Black life into which slave owners tended not to intrude. Despite the massive conversion of Africans to Christian faiths, they retained many of their former rituals associated with respect of the dead. Placing personal items on graves is more than an emotional gesture. One resident of the Georgia Sea Islands testified, “Spirits need these [things] same as the man. Then the spirit rest and don’t wander.”
In addition to personal objects, some African-American graves in the South are decorated with white seashells and pebbles, suggesting the watery environment at the bottom of either the ocean or a lake or river. These customs are not associated with the Christian belief of salvation; they 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), their world of the dead is not only known to be underground but 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 only be reached by penetrating beneath the two physical barriers. Their whiteness is a reminder that in Central Africa white, not black, is the color of death.
Also found in Black cemeteries are pipes driven into burial mounds to serve as speaking tubes that may allow communication with the deceased and mirrors that are said to catch the flashing light of the spirit and hold it there. These same customs are found in burial sites in the Bay Area of California. As with various other matters in life, many people carry heartfelt customs and traditions from place to place as essential parts of cultural property.
An Encyclopedia of African American Christian Heritage
by Marvin Andrew McMickle (2002)