Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust

1. Ghost hunters in Louisiana burned down a plantation they’d broken into. So, that’s not good.

2. The other weekend, I was showing S. around some of my favorite cemeteries in town. We went by Greenwood and I pointed out the number of graves covered in white stones. And I remembered that Bridgett, I think, had told me why this is, but I’d forgotten. but then I found it again:

In addition to personal objects, some African-American graves in the South are decorated with white seashells and pebbles, suggesting the watering environment at the bottom of either the ocean or a lake or river.

Such material items are not associated with the Christian belief of salvation; they are more likely signs of the remembrance of African custom. 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 known to be underground but under water. 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 remembers that in Central Africa white, not black, is the color of death.

4 thoughts on “Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust

  1. the cemetery my Mother’s family is buried is on the property of an old country church about 10 miles outside if my hometown. As far as I can recall, at least five, if not six or more, generations of my family call this their final resting place. In the older parts of the cemetery, there is one particular grave that is decorated with large shells – not sure if these are true conch shells, but they are big nonetheless. However, these are the graves of white people – segregation & all – so I wonder how that tradition crossed over?

  2. My first thought was that those stoned idiots were maybe doing the will of the ghosts, who reportedly had suffered quite a bit in that plantation house and were probably annoyed at all the white people who wanted to tour it and thought it was “pretty.” I think old houses are valuable things, but old plantation houses are more complicated to me; it seems like maybe they should all be burned down, and the ashes buried, because of what they represent.

  3. Beth, does it have the enclosure like this?

    With the shells filing the enclosure?

    Otherwise, grave decorating in ways that are meaningful to the deceased or his family are pretty common in general. So, it’s hard to know if it’s a cross-over (though it certainly could have been, because it looks cool) or just that family’s own tradition.

    emjb, yeah, I hear you. When I first moved down here, I met a guy who was then working at MTSU documenting what slave buildings were still left around Middle Tennessee and he said he pretty frequently got requests from Black people who had traced their ancestry back to homes in our area to get them onto the land where their ancestors had been enslaved. He said that this was often the only tangible connection they had to their ancestors–a grandfather had built this house, a grandmother had swept this path.

    I don’t think there’s any way to feel about the past except for conflicted and unsure. But I do know that we do not know what people might need from those buildings. And that’s what I try to keep in mind. We have to be careful with them, even if they seem obviously to be reminders of a terrible tragedy, because the group of people who needs to be able to put a hand on a nail and know that nail is in that wall because their people found a way to live is large and owed that, even if most of them never want or need to do it.

    There has to be some line between glorifying the past and wiping it away.

  4. There are quite a few graves with enclosures such as the one you linked. As I recall, there is at least one line of shells at either the top of the bottom of the plot – but I don’t think it goes all the way around. I guess I’m going to have to drive out there and get a photo. I’d always wondered the significance of the shells – and also, since this is 5 hours from the coast by car (going 70 mph), shells weren’t easily obtainable considering the age of these graves.

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