In viewing a traditional African American Cemetery, you will observe noticeable differences from what you would see in a traditional Euro-American cemetery. Some of these differences can be attributed to religious beliefs, others to a person’s lot in life.
According to African Americans traditions, there is always room for one more person. It is very important that family members be buried in the same cemetery. They do not have to be interred next to each as in the Euro- American family plots, but it is essential for them to be laid to rest in the same area of land as their relatives. You will find that usually the graves are randomly situated on the land, where as in Euro-American cemeteries, you typically find symmetry in the placement of the grave markers. Even though the graves are sporadically placed, most coffins are positioned so the person faces to the east. This comes from the concept that the world is orientated east to west following the sun. Others have suggested they were buried facing Africa.
The location of the African American cemeteries in the past are often found in “marginal areas.” The master would designate land that was not going to be used for other purposes as the burial ground. These spots were hidden away in remote areas among the trees and underbrush. Even the appearance of the burial area is different. Euro- American cemeteries appear more like a manicured park, African American cemeteries may look as if neglected or abandoned.
To an outsider the graves might look like they are covered with random junk. That is far from the truth. These are grave goods and are “offerings.” This ritual can be traced back to African mortuary practices. (See Grove Cemetery marker for more details)
Black cemeteries were seldom documented. It was not important to the plantation owner to record the location of “slave burial grounds.” But these sacred spots are well-known by the generations of families that continued to bury their family members within those places.
Preservation and protection of all types of cemeteries is crucial. It is up to all of us to make sure that these spaces are not erased and that they will be there for future generations to help them understand their heritage.