Garden Cemeteries and African-American Funerary Customs

Topics: Burial, American Civil War, Cemetery Pages: 6 (1886 words) Published: February 23, 2013
With the end of the American Civil War, African-Americans in the South were for the first time able to participate as individuals within the economic sphere. This participation came at a time of increased product homogenization and availability of grave markers. The use of widely available material culture has many times been “…dismissed as evidence of assimilation or acculturation.” (Singleton 1995:134) when seen in minority groups. The idea that homogenization of material goods is associated with assimilation and acculturation has led to a belief that 19th century African-American funerary practices were merely the result of Christian influences (Jamieson 1995:55), or attempts at masking social and economic disparity (Bell 1990:68). However, this is an oversimplification of African-American funerary practices, and fails to recognize that purchasing choices exist even within a homogenized material culture. In this paper, I am studying the design and use of space at Evergreen Cemetery, an African-American garden style cemetery, as a communicative landscape. I am using Hollywood Cemetery as the standard expression of a garden style cemetery in the South, and place the similarities and differences seen in Evergreen within the context of the society in which it was created. By doing this, it is possible to understand Evergreen Cemetery as both an attempt at acceptance and assimilation into white society by African-Americans as well as an expression of self and social identity. Importance of the Cemetery

Before discussing how the spatial design and use of Evergreen Cemetery was reflective of African-Americans’ current, and hoped for, place within society, the place of the cemetery within African-American communities of the South needs to be established. African-Americans focused on death to such a degree that Booker T. Washington lamented, “The trouble with us is that we are always preparing to die.” (Cited in Roediger 1981:63). The importance of the cemetery to African-Americans living in the South can be traced back to plantation slavery. The myth of Southern paternalism created an image of African-American funerary practices that were not just tolerated by whites but that whites were “…positively fostering them…” (Roediger 1981:64). In reality, the cemetery was a central part of a slave’s life. Under a system of near constant supervision, the slave cemetery was one place designated solely for African-Americans (Barber and Madden 2010:119) and allowed for the development of African-American burial practices (Jamieson 1995:39). With the coming of the American Civil War, the themes of death and mourning, and through them the cemetery, gained increased importance within African-American society.

Starting in the mid-1800’s, African American writers began to focus on “…issues of death, dying and mortality.” (Steele 2007:29). The initial goal was to create an idea of self and meaning for African-Americans within a society that denigrated them and by doing so give them a voice in which to extend their sorrow, brought on by slavery, across the nation and turn it into political resistance (Steele 2007:40). By the late 1800’s the idea of political resistance began to be entwined with attempts for integration into, and equitability within, the dominant white social structure. Places of death and mourning within African-American writings “…became the standard sites for sentimental relations and the bonding of different social groups.” (van der Woude 2007:95). However, within society these sympathetic relations and bonding could be prevented by cultural differences that interfered with the generation of sympathy by the onlookers, whites, towards the acts of mourning by African-Americans (van der Woude 2007:95). One way in which these cultural differences could be minimized was through the adaptation of the material culture of the dominant social group. With a natural link between sorrow and...
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