My mother sent me a very interesting article from the “Vermont Old Cemetery Association Newsletter”. The subject of the piece was how one women’s family would gather on the third Monday in August to clean up the local grave yards. It seems the town turned out and it was very much like a reunion with food and sharing. In this article she mentions after the graves were cleaned, grass cut and debris removed, they took broken dishes and placed them on the graves to keep the grass from growing. She recalls this happening in the 1940’s around the Dresden Tennessee area.
I found it very intriguing as have I never come across such a practice in my research and I wondered where this tradition may have come from. In my search around the internet I found some very interesting results. It seems that this is an African-American, and African tradition. I do not know the women’s ethnicity so I can’t really say that this was the case in her story. In the book by Alan Jabbour, and Karen Singer Jabbour “Decoration day in the Mountains” on page 38 they state:
“There is also an African-American tradition of broken glass or broken pottery on graves, which is of African origin” In the blog “The World Is Just Enough“, Frank Hanisch tells of visiting a cemetery in Zambia and how they break and put on the grave everything the deceased used in the last week, including clothes, glasses in trying to make sure the illness and all bad things leave with the body. A record of Blairs Chapel C.M.E. Cemetery in Madison County Tennessee comments that in a part of the cemetery that is African-American burials is littered with shells, another grave decoration used, and broken pottery. Leaving the author to believe that this practice also took place in this part of the cemetery at one time. At SCIWAY (South Carolina Information Highway) they note that an anthropologist in the early 1890’s noted that “ nearly every grave has bordering or thrown upon it a few bleached sea-shells of a dozen different kinds.” The author states that this practice is traced back to the Bakongo belief that the sea shell encloses the soul’s immortal presence. It has also been stated by some Gullah into the 20th century that the shells are representative of the sea, where we came from and where we will return.
This practice can be found widely through out the old cemeteries in the south where there were African-American burials.
This has been a very interesting adventure! I would urge you to look into such practices more thoroughly as this is just a bit of what can be found.
There are so many traditions that so many of us are unaware of. Knowing where some of these traditions come from can’t but help to enhance our research and family histories.
Post Script: May 21, 2013
I came across a very good blog concerning African-American Burial Traditions here is the link! Enjoy. Understanding History: African-American Burial Traditions by Annette Hinkle on the Sag Harbor Express.