African American Funeral and Mourning Customs in South Carolina
“The dead body mattered and matters everywhere and across time;
in particular times and particular places; in disparate religious and
ideological circumstances; and even in the absence of any particular
belief about a soul or an afterlife or a God.1
Death is a universal experience. It is a trauma that has to be dealt with, and mourning and burial rituals help us maintain our bearings, understand who we are at that moment of bereavement, and affirm that we will get through the experience. All ethnic groups mourn the loss of their loved ones, and all bear an important responsibility to care for the bereaved and the deceased.
For many African Americans death is a familiar experience. Whether due to the brutality of slavery, the higher occurrence of disease and lack of access to adequate health care, or higher exposure to crime and violence, African Americans are more likely to experience the death of a close family member, friend, or neighbor than many other groups. While death may have an abiding presence for African Americans, the loss is no less tragic or painful. And they, like all human cultures, memorialize the deceased and express their grief and mourning to cope with the loss.
Customs associated with death and mourning are not static. African Americans’ burial and mourning customs vary widely within and between groups. A number of factors contribute to this diversity, including the tendency of customs to shift over time. There are regional differences, lack of group cohesion, and urban growth and development, as well as differences based on faith, age, individual preferences, and interaction with other cultural groups. In other instances the meanings associated with these practices are partially or totally forgotten or they are deliberately altered and are not transmitted to succeeding generations as intact components.
This article does not provide an exhaustive outline of burial and mourning customs for all African Americans in South Carolina or for every time period. It does examine two customs, grave decorations and circularity in African and African American culture that have had a continuity in African American culture from the historical period until now.
During the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries, and even today, African American funeral and mourning customs have represented an amalgamation of different cultural traditions—African, European American, and Native American. For some African Americans these distinct differences have their origins in belief systems that Africans brought to the Americas and consciously or unconsciously preserved and handed down to subsequent generations.2
A significant percentage of the enslaved people who were brought to North America were from central and western Africa. They encompassed the Congo, Angola, Nigeria, Dahomey, Togo, and the Gold Coast and Sierra Leone areas. We know that there is evidence of “African influence on [African American] mortuary practices in the Americas on both living communities and in archaeological contents.” One of the earliest documentations is an entry in the Journal of American Folklore (1891 and 1892) that describes decorated graves in South Carolina and compares them to illustrations (in Century Magazine, 1891) of correspondingly decorated graves in the Congo.3
The Bakongo people of Angola and the Congo were one of the groups that were enslaved and carried to South Carolina in significant numbers and whose burial customs are revealed in the past and present behaviors of African Americans. According to Robert Ferris Thompson the Bakongo believed that inanimate objects and things in nature had a living, conscious force within them, and that it was important to satisfy the spirit of the deceased and protect the living from the actions of dissatisfied spirits. The grave was a charm or powerful talisman that controlled events in the spirit world (world of the dead), as well as the world of the living. Objects placed on graves and rituals performed at the grave activated the grave’s power. Objects were placed on burial sites to prevent spirits from wandering in search of any articles in the world of the living.4
The Bakongo understood the world inhabited by spirits to be an upside down, murky, white, and watery world. Thus objects placed on graves were part of an extensive complex of collective actions and symbols that were part of funeral rites, mourning, and other postmortem care that helped usher the spirits of the deceased from the world of the living to the afterlife. Objects, often shiny, white, and/or associated with water (shells, pitchers, cups, glasses, bottles, tin foil, mirrors and pots, ceramic dishes, etc.) or clocks, lamps, beds, favorite possessions (including toys), medicine bottles, and objects last used by the deceased, were turned upside down on graves after they were broken or had holes punched in them. Breaking vessels released the spirits within the objects and allowed the object spirits to join the spirit of the deceased. These and other actions, such as passing children over or under the casket of a deceased loved one, were essential and preventive steps. They were designed to break the chain of death and protect family members, as well as the community, from immediately following the deceased into death.5
One of the earliest published accounts documenting this practice in South Carolina describes a blue shell-edged plate found on an African American grave that was dated from 1800 to 1818.6
In the late 1980s, oral histories were conducted for the South Carolina State Museum exhibition, The Last Miles of the Way: African American Homegoing Traditions in South Carolina, 1890−Present. The interviews demonstrated that African Americans were still placing objects on graves even though they did not know the original meanings for the practice beyond the belief that it was a way to show respect for the dead.7 And as late as 2005, Joseph Holloway, as cited by Charlotte King, indicated that the same behaviors were being practiced by African Americans at South Carolina’s Coffin Point Cemetery.8
Circularity in African and African American Culture
Some enslaved Africans were able to find elements and symbols within Christianity that meshed with their own beliefs and symbols. Examples included resurrection for those who lived a good life and the sign of the cross. In the Bakongo cosmology, the cross represented the Four Moments of the Sun: Birth; Midpoint in Life; Death; and the Afterlife. The movement of the sun across the sky symbolized critical points in life and death from sunrise (birth), high noon (midlife, the most productive period in life) and sunset (death) as well as the unseen (afterlife) of midnight. The Four Moments of the Sun is represented by both a cross and a circle and can be shown in several diagrams. One such emblem places Birth on the right and Death on the left of a horizontal line that separates the world of the living, (above the line) from the world of the dead. A vertical line located at the center of the horizontal line has a person’s Mid-life at the top and their Afterlife at the corresponding bottom of the vertical line. “The vertical line is the path to the power of God and the link between the two worlds. People who live a righteous life are assured everlasting life. They are reincarnated in the image, name or body of descendants or succeeding generations.”9 Beginning at the demarcation of Birth on the right of the horizontal line and moving in a counterclockwise pattern, the resulting image is that of an unbroken circle. The intersecting vertical and horizontal lines form a cross that is contained within and is part of the circle of life.
In western and central Africa the circle is an important religious and cultural element, especially in mortuary traditions that honor the dead. The circle is incorporated into art as well as dance. Known as circle dances in Africa and in South Carolina and other African American communities, the counterclockwise movement combined music with dancing/shouting and was identified as “plantation walk-arounds,” “shouts,” and “ring shouts.” In the United States they were initially performed around graves and later in churches and at religious ceremonies. Jonathan C. David notes that they were most often performed in religious services “after a formal prayer meeting or preaching service.”10
Although the high point of African American ring shouts was probably during the late nineteenth century, they continued to survive through the twenty-first century. Ring shouts can still be seen in some coastal churches in South Carolina and across the South. Today, through mass public performances and educational workshops by groups such as the McIntosh County Shouters of Georgia, there has been a renewed interest in and awareness of ring shouts and the important role that they played in African American religion and culture.11
African American mortuary traditions are a vital part of American culture and a subject that needs additional research to fully understand its many complex layers. Africa is not a monolithic continent, and the blending of different African cultures with European and Native American cultures has created a vast cultural web that spans time and space. A great deal more research needs to be done to better understand the rites and rituals associated with death among Africans and African Americans―explorations that link material forms with function and meanings; provide an understanding of behavior patterns between and among specific groups in Africa and in America at a given time and over time; and elucidate the various constructed identities linked to funeral and mourning customs including social and economic status. It is a task that should involve the combined efforts of multiple disciplines, including history, archaeology, and ethnography, and that can examine practices in Africa and America.
Related to the necessity for additional research is the need to preserve these important cultural sites. Unmarked African American graveyards are sometimes still viewed as dump sites rather than sacred resting places for the dead. They are important untapped reservoirs of data that can reveal significant information about African American funeral and mourning traditions.
- Thomas W. Laqueur, “The Deep Time of the Dead,” Social Research 78 (2011): 799–820, available at http://jstor.org/stable/23347016, accessed October 22, 2015.
- Elaine Nichols, The Last Miles of the Way: African American Homegoing Traditions in South Carolina, 1890–Present (Columbia, SC: South Carolina State Museum, 1989), 12.
- Sterling Stuckey, Slave Culture: Nationalist Theory and the Foundations of Black America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), 10–11; Ross W. Jamison, “Material Culture and Social Death: African America Burial Practices,” Historical Archaeology 29, no. 4 (1995): 29–59, http://www.jstor.org/stable/25616423, accessed October 23, 2015.
- Robert Ferris Thompson, Flash of the Spirit: African and Afro-American Art and Philosophy (New York: Vintage, 1984), 139; Robert Ferris Thompson and Joseph Cornet, Four Moments of the Kongo Sun: Kongo Art in Two Worlds (Washington, DC: The National Gallery of Art, 1981), 134–39, 151; Stuckey, Slave Culture, 10–11.
- Thompson, Flash of the Spirit; John Vlach, The Afro-American Tradition in Decorative Arts (Cleveland: Cleveland Museum of Art, 1978); Nichols, The Last Miles of the Way, 12–13.
- Nichols, The Last Miles of the Way, 12–13; Jamison, “Material Culture and Natural Death,” 50.
- Nichols, The Last Miles of the Way, 37.
- Charlotte King, “Separated by Death and Color: The African American Cemetery of New Philadelphia, Illinois,” Historical Archaeology 44, no. 1 (New Philadelphia: Racism, Community, and the Illinois Frontier, 2010): 125–37.
- King, “Separated by Death and Color,” 125–37; Thompson and Cornet, Flash of the Spirit, 151; Sterling, Slave Culture, 27–33. Nichols, The Last Miles of the Way, 14.
- Personal communication, Beatrice McGill Pressley, Charlotte, NC, 1974; Jonathan C. David, Together Let Us Sweetly Live: The Singing and Prayer Bands (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2007), 7–9; Stuckey, Slave Culture, 11–19.
- David, Together Let Us Sweetly Live, 7–9. Georgia McIntosh Shouters, http://mcintoshcountyshouters.com/, accessed October 14, 2015.