Historic Funeral Traditions: Bahamian Burials I

Bahamian Grave with Cross

Bahamian Grave with Cross

At the beginning of month-long graduate school archaeological dig in the Bahamas, one student asked what the class would do if a body were found during the digs. One professor responded, “Call the authorities, because that body would not be an antiquity.” In other words, any bones found in the Bahamas would be fresh bones, not historical objects. The reason behind this oddity is that the limestone found throughout the Bahamas acts as an agent to quickly dissolve flesh and more slowly to dissolve bone and teeth. But, in most cases, a body buried in the Bahamas can disappear within a decade.

This is one reason why Bahamians can re-use graves, which is convenient considering that the islands don’t hold many people, let along cemeteries. Additionally, limestone can prove to be difficult to carve, depending upon the limestone type. Therefore, digging one grave by hand (as most were dug this way during the early years of European and African occupation) can be labor that could last for generations if needed. From The City Rocks! Web site:

Limestone is a sedimentary rock that consists mostly or entirely of the minerals calcium carbonate (CaCO3) or magnesium carbonate (MgCO3). Most of the limestone on the planet forms in the ocean. Tiny, floating plants and animals called plankton take dissolved calcium, carbon, and oxygen from seawater and use it to make shells. When the plankton die, their shells drift down to the seafloor and collect in a sediment called ooze. Over time, the ooze hardens to limestone. Shells, bones, and corals can also form part or all of a limestone. Limestones tend to form in warmer, shallower water and to dissolve in colder, deeper water. Limestone can be very hard and take carving and polishing well, but it is vulnerable to acid precipitation. Calcium carbonate dissolves easily in acid. In fact, if you drip a little dilute acid on a piece of limestone, it will fizz.

The Bahamas are nothing but limestone formations contained within a ridge of shallow, warm water. Shells abound, and limestone and shells were used throughout this archipelago for buildings, paths, fences and graveyards.

Our group studied post-Revolutionary War life at the Gerace Research Center on San Salvador Island, and included some studies on Nassau/Paradise Island. All the images shown in this article and in the next article were taken on San Salvador, where Christopher Columbus made his first landfall in 1492. When images from Nassau are included, this information will be included in the image information.

While cemeteries exist on San Salvador, some older grave sites also are situated on property where the deceased lived. One such grave is shown at the top, and it shows a Christian leaning with the cross. But, this grave also includes shells, limestone rocks and is ‘cradled’ by a bed of carved limestone. In many cases, graves bear no identification, since the sites may be re-used. But, the locals always remember who is buried in any given spot on San Salvador, and this information often is passed down through generations. With that said, grave sites are less important than having a space to bury someone, and gravestones even are less important.

While death is important within this culture, where and how a person is buried seems to have little impact on the importance of that person’s afterlife. Wishing a person “home” is important, though, and symbolism helps with this transition for the living.

The history of the culture on San Salvador is African and European, depending upon who was the slave and the slave owner throughout the first decades of this island’s inhabited existence.  During and after the American Revolutionary War, Europeans brought their influence to bear upon burial traditions, and this mix of island geography, European influence and African culture is seen in a San Salvadorian cemetery that includes European grave sites and sites that were used for slaves who had become native to the island since the Revolutionary War:

One cemetery's contrast between European influence...

One cemetery's contrast between European influence...

...and African influence.

...and African influence.

The two images above were taken at the same cemetery, and it shows the difference between the European burial influence and the African influence. The former contains headstones, an attempt to ‘corral’ the body with cement and/or limestone containment barriers and fences. The latter influence contains stones that emulate grave stones, piles of rocks and other artifacts that symbolize the attempt to help the soul into an afterlife.

In all cases, note the deterioration prevalent among the grave sites in a cemetery that is located in the middle of an island town. Cemeteries created in an environment conducive to tropical storms, salt air, water and limestone are difficult to maintain, and these issues contribute to the overall condition of grave sites and cemeteries throughout the islands.

Deterioration is prevalent, even among grave sites that seem important.

Deterioration is prevalent, even among grave sites that seem important.

The next blog entry will show how some churches handle their burials, and you can learn more about symbolic gestures made for the dead and found among grave sites throughout the Bahamas as well as in many U.S. cemeteries.

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