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Common Symbols Found in Cemeteries

The website of the Association for Gravestone Studies includes information about the meaning of symbolism on gravestones and links to listings of common symbols from the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries.

Symbols Associated with African American Graveyards

Today, most African American cemeteries are similar to white cemeteries. Some African American cemeteries, especially in the rural areas of the state, still include symbols and traditions with roots in Africa.

Many slaves brought to South Carolina came from the Kongo and Angolan ports of the West African coast. The Bakongo culture dominated these areas. The Bakongo believed in one god and an afterlife in a world populated by spirits. The spirit world was turned upside down under the world of the living and connected to it by water.

To the Bakongo, graves were important as mediums for communication with the spirits of the dead. The Bakongo decorated graves with personal belongings of the deceased--items the spirits would need in the afterlife. A traveler in Africa in 1891 noted that the Bakongo decorated the graves of their friends with items like crockery, empty bottles, and old cooking pots.

Many slaves adopted Christian beliefs, but they also continued to practice African traditions, sometimes vesting them with new meanings. Although the practice has declined, personal goods still mark some African American graves.

Items associated with water--shells, pitchers, jugs, vases, and the like--are often found on graves. These items reveal a link to the Bakongo belief that the spirits pass through a watery world in their journey to the afterlife.

Items placed on graves are often turned upside down and broken. This practice also reflects Bakongo practices in Africa. The upside down position of the object symbolizes the inverted nature of the spirit world. The breaks allow the object to release its spirit so it can journey to the next world to serve its owner.

Objects associated with light--lamps, lampshades, and candlesticks--are also often found on graves in South Carolina. In the 1920s, a scholar recorded seventy-one graves on the South Carolina coast with lamps. According to tradition, items associated with light would help lead the spirit to the spirit world. Also found on graves are beds, favorite possessions of the deceased, and shiny objects like coins and tinfoil.

The placing of personal items on graves is not as common as it once was. The traditional graves that remain, therefore, are important reminders of the African cultural roots of many South Carolinians.