Rituals and archaeology: MLK’s two burial places

Submitted by Sammy Smith (sammy@thesga.org)

By definition, archaeologists do not have access to data on the full range of the culture of the people who left behind the remains they investigate.

Archaeological data is particularly unlikely to preserve details about the rituals* of past peoples. Some aspects of rituals may be preserved, but most are cultural—they are behaviors and beliefs, and not things—and in particular not things that will not rot or decompose. Therefore, rituals do not preserve well archaeologically, and are thus lost unless preserved through repetition or oral memories.

Consider funerals. Rituals associated with death are common in societies around the globe. In our culture, death rituals commonly include ceremonies at funeral homes and cemeteries or memorial gardens.

Atlanta’s most famous funeral was held for Martin Luther King, Jr., after he was murdered in April 1968.

MLK Coretta mausoleum King Center Atlanta

The burial tomb of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and his wife Coretta Scott King, at the King Center in Atlanta.

We think of Dr. King’s burial place as its present location, on the grounds of the Martin Luther King, Jr., National Historic Site near Ebenezer Baptist Church and Dr. King’s birth home on Auburn Avenue, in Atlanta.

However, Dr. King’s remains were not moved to the marble tomb at the King Center until 1977, and the National Historic Site was not established until 1980.

Prior to that move, Dr. King’s remains were at the historic South-View Cemetery, on Jonesboro Road on the south side of Atlanta.

South View Cemetery sign

South-View Cemetery was established in 1886 after the Civil War by former slaves and their children. The Cemetery’s website notes:

The oldest African-American “non-eleemosynary” corporation in the country, South-View Cemetery is the final resting place for over 70,000 African Americans, many of whom have made significant contributions to American history and the struggle for freedom and peace. Among the many notables are men and women who were scholars, business owners, pastors, professors, military heroes, musicians, athletes, and civil rights activists.

Similarly, Dr. King’s wife, Coretta Scott King, was buried twice. She died in late January 2006, and was first buried in a temporary mausoleum. Later, the marble tomb holding Dr. King was modified to hold the couple’s remains, and the exterior text corrected to include both their names.

MLK Sr grave South View Cemetery

The graves of Martin Luther King, Sr., and Alberta Williams King at South-View Cemetery.

Dr. King’s father, Martin Luther King, Sr., and his mother Alberta Williams King are still buried at South-View.

So, Dr. King was first buried at South-View Cemetery. Then, his remains were moved to the King Center, which had been established near his birth home (see map below). Both burials were done with considerable ceremony—with rituals.

What parts of the many rituals and events described here could preserve archaeologically?

Read more about Martin Luther King, Jr.’s funeral in Rebecca Burns’s book Burial for a King: Martin Luther King Jr.’s Funeral and the Week that Transformed Atlanta and Rocked the Nation (2011; Scribner).

* A ritual is a set of behaviors, usually performed for symbolic reasons; it is not unusual for food to be incorporated into or be associated with a ritual.

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