As you walk through Grove Cemetery you will notice many traditional headstones and various grave depressions and mound graves. What is missing today is the grave decorations. Traditional African-American goods such as dishes, shells, plants, iron pipes and personal items were placed on the graves of the deceased. In Africa as well as in the Gullah culture there is a strong belief that a deceased relative has the ability to return. It is important to help keep the soul at “rest” and the spirit of the deceased will not be able to rest unless it is satisfied. Without their personal items, the spirit will be compelled to come to back to retrieve them. The Gullah culture believes that a person has 2 spirits; “heaven going” and the “trabblin”. The traveling spirit is the one to be concerned about. They would be the ones to torment the living and are considered evil. Therefore to appease that spirit, the last items used by the person will be placed on or in the grave. To also help break those earthly ties, the practice of thoroughly cleaning the deceased’s house is very important. In the past, broken pottery or a broken wooden wagon wheel would be found on the graves. (Even today you will see floral arrangements in the shape of a broken wagon wheel.) These items represent the spiritual release and break from their worldly life.
To help keep that trabblin’ spirit on the other side, certain prickly plants were use such as Yuccas or thorny bushes. This makes it difficult for the spirit to roam freely in the cemetery. Sweet smelling bushes such as the Gardenia are also used to keep them in their final resting place. In one account of African- American folklore, mention is made of a silver coffin-plate inscribed with the name of the deceased that is believed to help confine the spirit to its proper resting place within the coffin.
Other objects such as clocks, mirrors or glass items that are placed on top of a grave have a different meaning. Clocks became a popular symbol in the 1900s. The time on the face represents the time that the deceased passed or the time was set for 12, the time to wake the dead on Judgement Day. (Today you will see the use of flowers or Styrofoam to make the clock faces.) This symbolism is a combination of Christian (Judgement Day) and African (the relationship of the object to the deceased) beliefs.
Whereas glass and mirrors are reflective items that show the “mirror image” of this life and the light that comes from these items represent the spirit. This light implies the spirits entrance to the spiritual world where all is light and brilliance.
In Africa, the BaKongo religion believes that the dead inhabit villages which are located under river beds or lake bottoms. Many of the objects such as pitchers, cups, bottles placed on graves can be in some way associated with water. The placement of mirrors also relates to water, which represents the smooth reflective surface of a lake or river.
Sea shells, when placed on a grave, create an image of a river bottom. The shells can also be traced back to another African belief of the BaKongo tribe. This belief is that the sea shell enclosed the soul’s immortal presence. The Gullah people say “The Sea brought us, the sea shall take us back. So the shells upon our graves stand for water, the means of glory and the land of demise.” To those enslaved, death was an escape forever from the bonds of servitude and a return to the ancestral spirt home.
The new century has caused some African American traditions to change but many have survived today and are perhaps a way to preserve ones ethnic identity. Does the realm of the dead truly have an impact on the living?