has been made
possible in part by:
for this exhibition
can be found by
For the enslaved Africans, the funeral was a critical part of life. Slaves demanded to be allowed to give their respects to the dead, and it was only an extremely cruel or extremely foolish owner who would dare refuse. The funeral was a place where slaves could come together to acknowledge and celebrate their humanity. Respect for the dead translated into respect for the living. The slave community was able to gather together and participate in unique expressions of their newly forming African-American culture.
This culture manifested itself in the blending of African traditions with Western Christian funeral practices. Some of the African traditions were frightening to whites, but were critical to the black community. For example, blacks often insisted that the funerals be held at night. This practice came from West Africa, but it also served a practical purpose on the plantation: at night, slaves from neighboring plantations could sneak away to join in the funeral celebration. Also, the funeral often included a long procession in which all of the people would pass by the grave, shouting, chanting and singing. Whites felt threatened by this display and saw it as pagan or even satanic. But the black slaves saw it as a necessary way to put the dead to rest.
Other traditions in the African-American funeral also came from West Africa. Slaves were often buried with their heads facing west. This comes from an old African tradition of facing the same way as the sun is facing when it rises, but it combined with a Christian tradition as well. The slaves read in the Bible that the angel Gabriel would come from the east, and so they wanted to be facing in the same direction as Gabriel did when he came at the end of time. Slaves often buried their dead with food, in order to sustain the slave on his trip to the next world. This practice came straight from Africa, as did another unique custom, that of placing broken earthenware on the new grave. The pieces of earthenware were used to symbolize the broken body of the dead slave. This practice has been traced to possible origins in Angola, which was the country of origin of many of the slaves in the American South.
Another aspect of the funeral that was especially foreign to whites was the fact that the black funeral became such a huge celebration. Funerals were one of the most important functions for black ministers, who often traveled long distances to preach at the events. For this reason, black funerals often happened in two parts. The burial would take place immediately after the slave died. The actual funeral would not happen for several weeks, however. The funeral celebration, or "second burial," would not take place until the preacher and all of the slave's family and friends could be gathered. The funeral would consist of a short sermon from the preacher and then the long procession in front of the grave. Afterwards, there would be a huge feast. The slaves would get together and eat, drink, dance, and play drums throughout the night. Whites were frightened by these festivals and thought that they were pagan and dangerous. But for the slaves, it was one of the only chances that they had to celebrate the lives of their friends and families.