Historical Burial Traditions: Bahamian Burials III

Nassau cemetery with a mix of memorials and transient grave sites.

Nassau cemetery with a mix of memorials and transient grave sites.

In the first blog entry about Bahamian burials, you may have learned that there was a distinction among social classes and between races in life as well as in death in the Bahamas. In the second article, you may have witnessed how both Europeans and Africans influenced each other in the types of memorials reserved for the dead and the designation of a burial as permanent or transient. This article, the last in the series, shows how class defined the Bahamian burial; however, cultural influences also shaped the Bahamian burial scene.

Many Europeans who served in the military or who stayed on the Bahamas’ islands after the American Revolution often purchased gravestones from England or Europe. The marble and granite stones that you might see in Nassau or on Paradise island represent wealthier Europeans who had the means to afford these stones. Even today, in less populated Bahamian islands such as San Salvador, you may find machine-carved polished granite stones. But, these stones were delivered to the island, just like Christmas trees, beer and any other commodity consumed on that latter island.

More commonly, you can find a mix of grave styles within Nassau’s cemeteries as shown in the image below:

A mix of social class and culture in this cemetery.

A mix of social class and culture in this cemetery.

In the image immediately above, taken in Nassau, you can see a polished granite stone, a hand-carved headstone and a pile of carved limestone rocks in the far right background. All three are graves, and the least permanent grave site is the one surrounded and covered by the limestone blocks. The cement borders designate the difficult-to-dig grave sites, and many of them do not contain headstones. A simple pine box lies just feet under the earth.

But, what you cannot see in this image are objects left on many graves. In San Salvador, a custom of leaving plates, vessels, bottles and other objects is more common than in Nassau, but those objects can be found at almost any cemetery or grave site, no matter whether its in a church yard or on town property.

James Deetz writes in his book, In Small Things Forgotten:

…there is a clear pattern in the types of objects used by African Americans to decorate graves. Bottles and jars predominate, sometimes broken in such a way that they appear to be whole. This was often accomplished by breaking a hole in the bottom, invisible when the object is set upright on the grave. Such breakage could be seen to be done to prevent theft, but [John} Vlach cites extensive evidence that such is not the case, since the community will not disturb grave offerings, even coins, as a result of customs which had their origin in the African past. Similar grave ornamentation is known from all West and Central Africa, where, as in America, graves and their decorations are seen as inviolate, not to be stolen from.

A quick look at graves in a more remote grave yard on San Salvador Island shows little of this African influence. But, if you sit for a while and concentrate, you can begin to see a shard of glass here, a nail there, a small vase and a shell there. After a while, you might begin to see entire plate sets, bottles and a series of glassware set along the barriers that mark the grave site. Some of these same objects are found in African-American grave sites throughout the southern U.S.

While many scholars have put forth theories about these symbols, only one may make sense – that of the slave who wants to return home and who finds that way home after death. Many death rituals, symbols and stories about death that have emerged from slavery centers on a watery symbolism. But, it is a dangerous thing to assume a belief system. For instance, in one headline in a story about a Bahamian grave site found recently in Miami, the writer asks, “Graves without grievers?” Some people may be confounded about how a cemetery filled with dozens of people in the early twentieth century could go undocumented and unnoticed.

Without understanding a culture, it may be difficult to understand that, at times, it can be easy to walk away from a cemetery. And, as an African American in this country, until recently, it could be very easy to die without documentation. Part of the reason for this ability to hide after death is found in the way European and American cultures clung to the slave culture over the centuries. Another reason is found in the African culture itself, one that may want to keep some personal points private. Deetz points to a William Faulkner quote in Faulkner’s book, Go Down, Moses, that might sum up the issue:

“…the grave, save for its rawness, resembled any other marked off without order about the barren plot by shards of pottery and broken bottles and old brick and other objects insignificant to sight but actually of a profound meaning and fatal to touch, which no white man could have read.”

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