The History of African American Death:
Superstitions, Traditions, and Procedures
Death has always been to many a forbidden topic of discussion. However, in the African American community death is very much an important aspect of culture. It has been stated that death traditions, customs, procedures, mourning practices, burial rites, and even the structure of African American cemeteries differ greatly from that of non-African Americans.
It has been stated amongst the black community that death is not a time of sadness but a time to rejoice for the deceased no longer has to endure the trials and tribulations of this earthly world. The deceased are indeed mourned and missed, however, death is also a time of celebration. These emotions and procedures of death is what student researcher focused on.
Many African Americans may not be aware that some of the present day traditions and customs of death can be traced back to African roots of the Bakongo and the LaDogaa tribes.
These African traditions have been passed down from the oldest living members of the community, in the form of expressions, sayings, superstitions, religious beliefs and practices, and music. Many of the stories and superstitions relating to death and burials are still believed today, especially in the Southern United States. Since the Sea Islands, have strong rooted Africanisms, the culture of Angola and Sierra Leone are most commonly thought of as the closest identification to their heritage. Sea Islanders however are not the only group of African Americans with these strong ties; the cultural traditions spread far and wide.
Death to African Americans is not an event which just occurs, is "handled," and then forgotten about. When one dies, there is a series of events which usually take place. After the approach of death family members are often notified right away, not just the immediate family members, but every relative and friend of the deceased. Old beliefs and superstitions, are remembered and acted upon. An old belief is that the dead can not be buried on a rainy day. The sun is-a sign that the heavens are open and welcoming for the deceased one. If it rains while a man is dying, or if lighting strikes near his house, the devil has come for the soul. Thus, the family members often attempt to bury the dead on a sunny day.
There is usually a five to seven day mourning period before the actual funeral. Before the funeral takes place there is generally a ceremony known as a wake. At this time, close friends of the family of the deceased pay respects to the family and view the body. Many wakes take place at the funeral parlor, but have been known to take place at the church or the home of the deceased. This is a time when everyone gathers and eats food cooked by the family members, and shares memories of the deceased. Two viewing days may be arranged for the wake. After this time period there is the funeral which consists of a funeral procession. The hurse leads cars of the deceased family members follows. The immediate family members follow directly behind the hurse. All of the cars following in the procession place purple flags upon their antennas and drive with the car head lights on to identify themselves as members of the funeral procession. Once reaching the cemetery many traditions (or superstitions) are followed concerning the actual burial of the dead. It is believed that it is important that the dead be buried feet facing east; to allow rising at Judgment Day. Otherwise the person remains in the crossways of the world.
Coins are placed on the eyes of the dead to keep them closed. However, coins were also sometimes placed in the hands as the deceased person's contribution to the community of the ancestors-or perhaps, as a token for admittance to the spirit world. For the same purpose coins are also placed on or around the grave site. It is believed that one should always cover the body and one should never place it directly in the ground. All of these traditions may not be practiced by every African American family but many of them were and still are believed to this day.