Case Study

African Funeral and Memorial Traditions in America

By Elizabeth M. Holland

Despite enslavement and the suppression of African culture, many African Americans have maintained distinctly African funeral and memorial traditions based on the African belief that death is not the end of life, but a transition into an active spirit life. The majority of African belief systems are monotheistic and based on a hierarchical pattern with God at the highest point, then Spirits, then human beings, animals and plants, and phenomena. When people die they are elevated to the status of Spirit and exercise more control or authority over those still living. Thus proper burial is of the utmost importance.

The New Orleans jazz funeral derives from both the Dahomean and Yoruba cultures of West Africa. The joyful music land exuberant dancing which follow the funeral rites reflect the belief that death is a gateway to the domain of the spirits. Rejoicing at death also has been the African-American's response to a life of enslavement and oppression. Death was a triumph of redemption, an escape to freedom and an end to weary troubles. Although jazz funerals are rarer today, they still take place especially for jazz musicians.

The jazz funeral follows a detailed formula. The band accompanies the family, friends and the casket from the home or funeral home, to the church. Then the mourners either march to the cemetery, or they "Cut the body loose" (send the hearse off to the cemetery). Up to this point the procession is solemn and the band plays dirges adopted from French martial music, As soon as they "cut the body loose" or leave the cemetery, however, the band strikes up a joyous sound and everyone dances back to the lodge hall with others joining in along the way.

For many African-Americans, the grave has been a powerful point of contact between the worlds of the living and the dead. In the American South, grave traditions of the Bakonga culture survived. A variety of objects were placed on graves to assist the spirits in their "journey home" and to discourage spirits from haunting the living. These included objects owned by the deceased such as clocks, dishes, and other objects which were broken to free the spirit. White objects, especially shells, were common grave decorations because the world of the dead was thought to be "white and watery."

Even in the North, non-Christian burial traditions persisted. The recent excavation of a 19th-century African-American cemetery in Philadelphia revealed that shoes, coins, and plates had been placed in some burials, possibly reflecting African beliefs in the use of such items by the deceased on their journey to the spirit world.

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