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Burial Practices for Slave Children

Most of the inherited cultural practices of their ancestors were denied to slaves in America, with the exception of mortuary behavior. While slave owners would have controlled nearly every aspect of slave life, some practices, specifically burying their own dead, were “permitted”. In comparing slave cemeteries to burial sites in Africa, Jamieson provides evidence that funerary practices were carried over from Africa. While rare today, New World slave mortuary practices were widespread; although, cultural transmission of mortuary behavior is strong in general among many groups. Church burials were denied to slaves as they were not baptized Christians. So, slaves were left by whites to bury the dead within their own cemeteries, with special groups of slaves to prepare the body. Funerals in New York, for example, were the only times slaves could gather in groups larger than three.25 Characteristics of slave burials included mounds of 1/2m -1 m high, with burials in and around the mounds. Grave goods were either sentimental or an item that would serve the deceased after death. Some African groups buried all of the deceased’s possessions in the grave. It was believed that the grave good belonged only to the living, and was buried with the deceased in order to get the trapped soul out of grave.26 For the funeral of the infant son of an African born slave in the 1830s, for example, the child was buried with a small bow and arrow and a miniature canoe in order to help him cross the ocean to his own country. The child was also buried in white muslin with figures painted on it so that the father’s countrymen would know the infant to be his son.27

There are other mortuary rituals practiced by American slaves which also had been carried over from African cultures. In Ghana, for example, there were separate burials for different social groups which were often tied to the cosmology of the group; those who died of natural causes were distinguished from those who did not. People who died a natural death were buried within the house, while among the Yoruba, for example, those who did not were buried out of town. Burial places were often related to the cause of death; drowning victims were buried at the river bank where they died, while infants were buried behind the mother’s hut. Empty marked graves indicated those who had died who couldn’t be brought back for burial. Dead children among the Ghanaian tribes were buried separately at a crossroads. Among the Asante, children under eight days old were buried in pots in town. Family burials in one grave were also common.

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