Grave-site decorations in many of South Carolina’s African American cemeteries originate from African traditions. West Africans transported to South Carolina as slaves had their own belief system regarding death, burial, and the power of the living and the dead.
West African tradition does not view death in isolation from life or birth, but as complementary to them. The Yoruba believe that death is not the end of life, but a means whereby the earthly existence is transformed to another state of being. In the Akan doctrine, the death of a loved one is only considered a tragedy for the person who adheres to an individualistic philosophy. The Akan recognize that the death of a family member is ripe with opportunities for ancestral intervention. These concepts are key to understanding the ritual of decorating or preparing the grave site.
Care and preparation of the grave site was seen as an obligatory respectful veneration to the dead as well as a precaution for the living. While full of positive possibilities, the recognition of the wrath of an unhappy, vindictive, or unsettled spirit released into the world of the living was always a concern. The grave site was considered to be a base of power activated by substance and ritual.
Shiny or reflective materials like mirrors, silver painted objects, and tin foil were commonly placed on grave sites. The shiny reflective materials may have represented the desire to steer the spirit on a smooth passage over a body of water, or a means for the living to catch a reflective glimpse of the spirit. Medicine bottles, dishes, and eating utensils placed on the graves, sometimes turned upside down and broken to possibly free the spirit and break the chain of death, were probably items used by the deceased during the last stages of illness. Kerosene lanterns and lamps were sometimes placed to light the way of the spirit back home. Messages written in bold, bright colors placed on and around the grave site were considered very potent protective forces. Seashells, very often seen on West African burial sites, were widely utilized on South Carolina’s coastal burial sites, and often outlined the grave in a variety of patterns, possibly to confuse malevolent spirits.
African American burial traditions have undergone a tremendous evolution. Modern grave sites, synthesizing African and European practices, utilize more and larger headstones, potted plants, silk flowers, and Styrofoam decorations. But there remains a subtle manifestation of the African heritage in African American burial, mourning, and grave-site practices.
Danquah, J. B. The Akan Doctrine of God. 2d. ed. London: Frank Cass, 1968. Idowu, E. Bolaji. Olodumare: God in Yoruba Belief. London: Longmans,
1962. Jones-Jackson, Patricia. When Roots Die: Endangered Traditions on the Sea Islands. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1987. Nichols, Elaine, ed. The Last Miles of the Way: African-American Homegoing
Traditions, 1890–Present. Columbia: South Carolina State Museum, 1989. Pyatt, Sherman E., and Alan Johns. A Dictionary and Catalog of African American Folklife of the South. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1999. Thompson, Robert F. Flash of the Spirit: African and Afro-American Art and Philosophy. New York: Random House, 1983.
Vlach, John M. “Graveyards and Afro-American Art.” Southern Exposure 5, nos. 2–3 (1977): 161–65.