Cemeteries are constructed for the deceased but hold insights into the beliefs of the living

Submitted by Kelly Woodard (kelly@thesga.org)

The Flat Rock Cemetery in Lithonia, Georgia, displays the widespread rural African-American custom of burying the dead with simple fieldstones placed at the head and foot of the interment. African-American tradition did not place significant importance on elaborate decoration of gravestones, as seen in formal cemeteries generally associated with white populations; but, instead placed emphasis on being buried in the cemetery as a community member and simple grave markers were used as a symbol of mutual aid reflected within the community.

The cemetery likely began as an informal slave burying ground during antebellum times with no known structure defining. It was common for enslaved individuals to be buried in undesirable land on plantations where they worked. The terrain of the cemetery is atop a hill in which the oldest known burials are located at the highest point. As the cemetery grew over time, the burials continued to dot the uneven landscape continuing down the hill in loosely defined rows, becoming more formal through the use of more individualized grave markers.

Cemeteries are sacred spaces embedded in the landscape where the past and present co-exist. Interpretation of the landscape makes it possible to understand how and why certain cultural processes were performed in the past. One must look beyond the façade of the landscape’s physical appearance to envision a cascade of potential clues leading to the past. The past may be absent from the present but it is not distinguished by it.

Our present environment is always a product of the past and has been shaped as such. The past environment co-exists within the present. For example, the landscape of a cemetery is a place in which past and present environments temporarily converge. To understand these concepts imagine the physical landscape of a cemetery in which ancestors place objects of cultural significance. In the case of the Flat Rock cemetery it is possible to see the past through the boundaries that have been set around the cemetery, various paths that have been walked by ancestors and continue to be used by their descendents, flora that was planted long ago and continues to live in the present. Also the various objects scattered throughout the cemetery tell individual stories of the past to those who are able to listen in the present.

To think like an archaeologist, one must realize how our environment shapes the reality in which we live by shifting their mind away from the colonial understanding that land is a physical surface to be occupied and instead that humanity co-exists with their environment, rather than one residing over the other. The landscape is alive and continually changing, it is neither complete nor incomplete, but is rather constantly under construction through the process of one’s growth and redevelopment. As humans, we develop our understanding of the world by having things shown to us as well as our experiences through touch, taste, smell and sound, in which our perceptions of the landscape are not constructed but rather implied. By understanding how we coexist with our environment, it is possible to begin to see how our environment shapes our being.

Cemeteries are constructed for the deceased but hold insights into the cultural beliefs and practices of the living. Cemeteries are a place where the living can reconnect with the dead and maintain ancestral ties. African-American cemeteries in the rural Southeast offer a way to understand the past through material culture, which include the grave offerings, left by the living. The temporality of burials preserves social elements of life through the material culture associated with death. In the African-American community artifacts associated with burials can provide tangible evidence that slaves brought their beliefs with them into the New World and adapted them into the new political and social landscape in which they lived.

Many underlying factors contribute to the transmission of cultural knowledge and practices from Africa to the Americas. As a result, every individual that crossed the Atlantic brought a piece of their cultural knowledge with them. That knowledge was then assimilated into an African-American culture and should be acknowledged as many different cultures and belief systems coming together to create a creolization of cultural practices shared within a new landscape.

Click here to read more about the Flat Rock Cemetery and ongoing research there.

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