Historic Funeral Traditions: Bahamian Burials II

Bahamian vault graves on San Salvador Island

Bahamian vault graves on San Salvador Island

Are you appalled by the idea that a family or community might re-use grave sites as mentioned in the previous Bahamian burial article? Or, perhaps the condition of the Bahamian cemeteries and grave sites might disturb you. If so, pick up the book, In Small Things Forgotten, by James Deetz to learn more about earlier American burials. On page 23, Deetz states:

“…it is not unusual to find single stones, from earlier in the eighteenth century, that mark the resting places of husband and wife as well as children. Group interment of this type is typical of earlier periods, and the contemporary concept of the churchyard was consistent with such a practice. Registers of churchyards invariably list far more interments than there are stones to account for them. Not everyone received a gravestone in the earlier periods, but unless we are able to conduct excavations in these cemeteries, the exact relationship between the numbers and groupings of the deceased and the markers in the cemetery will remain unknown. What is known is that the seventeenth-and eighteenth-century concept of a burying ground was that of a finite space that would hold all the deceased members of a parish regardless of how congested the space became. Diarists of the period mention bets of bone and teeth seen in the earth excavated for a new grave…”

The Bahamas presents such a burial environment, one that was reinforced after the American Revolution and continued even today. In earlier processes, however, graves also reflected the European tradition of memorial, and in many churches throughout Nassau, you can find memorials along a church’s inner walls and even along walkways:

Memorial plaques to the dead along a church wall.

Memorial plaques to the dead along a church wall.

An old stone embedded in a church walkway.

An old stone embedded in a church walkway.

Many of these memorial plaques represent the deaths of military men who were embedded in the Bahamas during and after the Revolution. Although at least one plaque is dedicated to a man lost at sea, many more memorials are dedicated to those who came to the islands and who lost their lives to diseases such as yellow fever.

Like memorial plaques, the vaults shown at the top of the page are part of what could be a resistance to the transient grave site in the islands. These two vaults are created from cement, and they resist any attempt to re-use the graves, unlike the temptation to reuse graves made more available by identifiable concrete borders and piles of rock. The islands, however, can support only so many graves of a permanent nature because of space limitations. You can find many graves throughout the southern U.S. like the ones shown at the top of the page. These types of graves are particular to African-American church cemeteries.

Once you visualize the church formality with the memorials shown above for Europeans who died in the Bahamas, the African influence seen in Nassau’s graveyards seems to bend to that European memorial influence in a more basic way:

Broken stones lean against a church wall.

Broken stones lean against a church wall.

The stones above may have been removed to re-use a grave. Showing deterioration, they resemble the same intent as memorials on the inside walls of the previous church. But, the exposure to weather tends to reduce those memorials to general deference, unlike a plaque devoted to a specific person.

The following grave shows more modern style, as sometimes it takes a bit of creativity to memorialize the dead and to make a grave site permanent when the culture leans more toward a transient burial site…

Bathroom/kitchen tiles as memorial.

Bathroom/kitchen tiles as memorial.

The grave site shown immediately above might send the same message as the vault graves shown at the top of the grave. Although the tiles seem less formidable than concrete, the message is the same – some effort went into this grave site, and to tear it apart might show more disrespect to the creator of that site than to the person buried there. After all, this grave has no identifying marks to let anyone know who might be buried here.

There is one more section to go in this series, as the African burial tradition is explored further in both the Bahamas and in the States.

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