Funerals and burials from the pre-Civil War era of slavery are rarely described and/or illustrated. From the few remaining narrative accounts, an outline of traditions can be gleaned: graveyards were located in the forest, and funerals were held at night.
One narrative specific to St. Helena Island can be found in the Journals of Thomas Chaplin on May 6, 1850:
“Got Uncle Ben’s [slave] Paul to make coffin for poor old Anthony. The body begins to smell very bad already, had it put in the coffin as soon as it came. Buried the body alongside of his son about 11 o’clock at night…. There were a large number of Negroes from all directions present, I suppose over two hundred.
About the same period, Frederick Law Olmsted describes a funeral he witnessed on his travels through the Low Country of South Carolina and Georgia:
“A beautiful, dense, evergreen grove is used as a burial-ground of the negroes. The funerals are always at night, and are described as being very quaint and picturesque – all the negroes of the neighborhood marching in procession from the cabin of the deceased person to the grave…. At the head of each recent grave stands a wooden post.” (80)
Creel, in her book “A Peculiar People”: Slave Religion and Community-Culture Among the Gullahs, describes another burial in South Carolina:
“The coffin, a rough home-made affair, was placed upon a cart, which was drawn by an old Gray, and the multitudes formed in a line in the rear, marching two deep. The procession was something like a quarter of a mile long. Perhaps every fifteenth person down the line carried an uplifted torch. As the procession moved slowly toward “the lonesome graveyard” down by the side of the swamp, they sung the well-known hymn:
“When I can read my title clear
To mansions in the skies,
I bid farewell to every fear
and wipe my weeping eyes.”
…. the corpse was lowered into the grave and covered, each person throwing a handful of dirt into the grave as a last farewell act of kindness to the dead…. A prayer was offered…. This concluded the services at the grave.”
Contemporary Gullah families have continued many of the traditions of their ancestors. Gutherie, in her description of the cultural traditions of Gullah families on St. Helena in the 1980s and 1990s wrote the following:
“Each plantation has its own cemetery and the plots are free. I was unable to walk about the graveyard, as the summer is just ended and the weeds and bushes are quite high. When someone dies, the brush is cleared away for the funeral party and the actual burial. …
Also, during these cleanup sessions, if the graves are unmarked, older residents remind the younger ones exactly who is buried where. In this way, the names of many of the deceased are remembered, though most graves remain unmarked. Thus, the cemeteries provide a focal reality that in many ways symbolizes the social meaning of belonging.”
Creel, Margaret Washington, 1988. “A Peculiar People”: Slave Religion and Community-Culture Among the Gullahs. New York: New York University Press.
Guthrie, P. (1996). Catching Sense: African American Communities on a South Carolina Sea Island. Westport, Connecticut, Bergin & Garvey, p. 23.
Olmsted, F. L. (1904). A Journey in the Seabord Slave States in the years 1853-1854 with remarks on their economy. New York, G. P. Putnam’s Sons.
Rosengarten, Theodore, 1986. Tombee: Portrait of a Cotton Planter, New York: Quill William Morrow, p. 496.