To the Grave and Beyond:
A look at funeral rituals and traditions from various West African cultures

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Kongo-style in the US

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Kongo Style in the US

*In creating this page, I consulted two references: Robert Farris Thompson's Flash of the Spirit and Paul and William Arnett's Souls Grown Deep: African American Vernacular Art of the South Vol. II. Robert Farris Thompson is an art historian and professor of African and African-American history at Yale. Paul and William Arnett study African American folk art in the South. In their book, they focus on several African-American artists they have met through their travels and describe the roots of their unique and beautiful work.

"The African American tradition of hanging bottles on trees to trap or repel evil forces has parallels all over Africa, where charms, plates and bottle-like gourds perform similar functions. They are also used to scare off trespassers. This art is not only used to embody aesthetic values, but also to honor and communicate with the supernatural" (Arnett 40).

 Bottle Trees: Kongo and Angola traditions of grave decorations have carried over to the western hemisphere. The tradition of tying bottles and other objects to trees serves to protect a house or one's property from evil spirits.  Kongo-derived bottle trees for example are trees “garlanded” with bottles, vessels and other objects for protecting the household through the "invocation" of the dead (Thompson 142). Most  Kongo-influenced bottle trees can be found throughout the South in Texas, South Carolina , Virginia, Arkansas,  Mississippi and Alabama. Bottles, containers, and everyday objects used by those who have died are hung from trees in the yards surrounding the home. Other than serving as protective charms, the hanging of objects owned by deceased family members send the message that death isn’t the end. The plates and cups of the dead are believed to preserve the power of the spirits of those who have died, and glass bottles preserve their  talents and skills from fading away.                                                   

Nkisi: Kongo-Angola influence is also seen in the New World in traditional black cemeteries in the southern United States. In the Kongo belief system, the tomb is a "charm for the persistence of the spirit" (Thompson 132). Minkisi (plural of nkisi) are charms or strategic objects that are said to affect healing,  bring luck to the owner, and house people’s souls. A nkisi is said to contain a spark (soul) giving it life. Minkisi  come in various forms, such as leaves, shells, packets, and ceramic vessels. Each one contains medicines (bilongo) and a soul (mooyo). Together these medicines give power and life. In Kongo vodun practice, these packets have mystical power to turn deities in favor of their owners.

Grave Decoration: At a Kongolese burial site, the coffin is the container of the charm and the soul of the deceased is the spark. Therefore, Kongo and Kongo American graves are seen as nkisi charms. Grave decorations used both in Kongo and the Americas, honor the spirit and guide it to the ancestor world, thus preventing it from wandering and returning to haunt the living. The decorations serve as the bilongo medicines. Both Kongo and Kongo-American tombs are covered with the last objects touched by the deceased. In Kongo-inspired America, the last-used objects are also supposed  to satisfy the spirit  and keep it from following the family back to their home.

"Spirit-directing medicines" are marked on many graves in both Kongo and America, specifically the image of the white chicken (Thompson 134). The color white is associated with the dead. The powers of the spirits are released by the sacrifice of the chicken, whose placement on the grave honors the dead.  Another prominent object used in the Kongolese grave decoration is the seashell, which is believed to contain the soul's eternal presence. Trees also are sometimes planted on graves to represent the spirit, with their roots going down into the other world. In this context trees are symbolic of life extension and the undying spirit.

Kongo-American graves are often decorated with other symbolic objects such as clocks, lamps, pots, pitchers, headlights, wheels, mirrors, tinfoil and other things similar to African grave decorations. In Arnett's book he describes the Cyrus Bowens family burial ground in Sunbury, Georgia, which includes crooked trees and gnarled roots. The Bowens graveyard contains  decorations including a clay marker decorated with a hand holding a mirror-a sign of the ancestor world. The graves are also decorated with spirit jugs that contain charm-like inscriptions, which also stem from Kongo funerary arts and grave decoration.


African American Folk Art Image Gallery