The common element in Kongo burial practices is the relationship of the living to their ancestors and recently deceased relatives. An ancient, syncretic religion, its absorption of Catholic influences and elements of various African traditions enhanced the tendency of idiosyncratic belief systems to develop among the individual villages. This diffusion of belief and practice facilitated the spread of a diverse and versatile religion from Africa to the New World where it has exhibited remarkable coherence in the expression of burial practices. The trans-Atlantic slave trade strengthened the emotional need to connect with the past, not only with one’s departed relatives but with Africa itself. In a sense, communing with one’s ancestors through the medium of burial rites helped generations of dispossessed and powerless Africans forge a connection to a lost cultural heritage. Their descendants have displayed a remarkable symbiosis between religion, symbolism and spiritualism through the rituals of death and burial.
Early African-Americans believed that when they died their souls would return to Africa (Alexander & Rucker, 14). One notable example of this belief and how it came together in spiritualism and religious symbolism is illustrated by the example of Jin, an 18th-century Congo slave in Massachusetts who gathered burial artifacts she believed her soul would carry back to
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Africa after her death (Ibid). This is an example of syncretic religious practice, combining physical burial ritual from the Kongo with beliefs and practices from other parts of Africa. For Jin and others like her, the grave was a place of passage and transformation bearing significance for both the departed and those left behind by the deceased. As such, the grave site and its markings and decorations bore physical and spiritual/symbolic meaning for African slaves in North America, South America, the Caribbean and other parts of the New World.
Eurocentric views of religious practices and spiritual beliefs are often apt to disregard the durability of rituals that have ancient origins in Kongo, rituals that can show continuity comparable to their Christian counterparts. “ The nature of the objects that decorate graves (in the American South), and in places as diverse as Haiti and Guadeloupe in the West Indies, reveals a strong continuity” (Thompson, 1984). As with Christian symbology (for instance, the prevalence of the cross), imagery animates and is central to spiritual expression. African-American cemeteries throughout the American South are among the most notable examples of the influence of Kongo spiritualism outside of Africa.
The nsusu mpembe, the white chicken, adorns the graves of many of the faithful. The white chicken is believed to invoke the powers of “ the white realm,” the world of the dead. “ In fact, the placement of images of white chickens on Kongo graves symbolizes the presence of the dead within the honorific whiteness of their realm” (Thompson, 1984). Thus, symbolism in the form of a powerfully totemic image represents access to the spiritual world for the dead as well as the living. It is this expression of spiritual symbolism that reaffirms the Kongo notion that the tomb itself is a charm of sorts for the existence of the soul (Ibid). Symbols play important
functional roles for the living. The tomb comprises a spiritual focal point with multiple components. The coffin and the earth around it hold the physical remains of the deceased, but the departed’s soul is the “ active ingredient” and, if not properly appeased, may still be expected to intervene in the affairs of the living. Thus, relatives place objects and “ decorations” on the grave to preclude the possibility that the spirit may seek to return to its relatives or become lost in the temporal world (Thompson, 1984).
Objects also play an important functional role in the burial ritual. Objects that belonged to the deceased and which the dead person is known to have come in contact with are used to decorate the gravesite. This is for more than just aesthetic purposes. In Flash of the Spirit: African and Afro-American Art and Philosophy, Robert Farris Thompson cites the rationale for this activity, as explained by a practitioner of Kongo: “ My own mother died while I was away. When I return to my village and visit her grave, I shall touch her plate and cup” (1984). In this way, the family member assumes helpful knowledge of his mother’s “ mambu,” her personal affairs, by dreaming of his mother’s wishes (Ibid). By coming into physical contact with her possessions, her child maintains a spiritual relationship that is practical and useful in the physical world.
The most potent spiritual force, however, is embodied by the last objects touched by the deceased. The placing of these objects on the tomb, a Kongo tradition that has remained particularly strong in the American South, is thought to have spiritual significance in that such objects are intended as talismans to protect the living. “ The arrest of the spirit in last-used objects directs the spirit in the tomb to rest in peace and honors its powers on earth” (Thompson,
1984). In other words, placing a last-used object on the tomb has a mollifying effect on the deceased, a condition known as kanga mfunya, which can be translated as meaning “ tying up the anger of the dead” (Ibid). Therefore, objects play an important symbolic role in a process that is intended to bring about meaningful results for the living. The dead may be gone in a physical sense, but in Kongo the spirit must still be accounted for after interment.
Beliefs about the role of the corpse itself in burial rituals vary widely from religion to religion. In Rituals of Resistance: African Atlantic Religion in Kongo and the Lowcountry South in the Era of Slavery, Jason R. Young writes that Kongo religious attitudes toward the physical remains of the deceased are “ ambiguous,” that the corpse itself is without power (2007). In Kongo, the dead body is an “ empty vessel,” a thing without relevance for the living without the presence of symbolically powerful objects but when “ invested with certain ritual prescriptions, that vessel might be animated and empowered to effect change in the here and now” (Young, year). In the low country of South Carolina, Kongo descendants use physical manifestations of the soul’s objectified power, such as soil from the grave of the deceased for “ conjuring,” for manipulating the spiritual power it imparts to gain some personal advantage (Ibid).
The religious basis for Kongo beliefs about placating or manipulating the dead originates in a cyclical concept of existence. Kongo adheres to a regenerative perspective, in which death exists as a transformative phase, with the souls of the departed simply passing into the realm of the dead (nsi a bafwa). Each day, the living and the dead exchange places as day gives way to night. The sun is the most important symbol in the Kongo belief system, its passage representing
the passage of life into death, or the passage of the soul (Kongo Religion, year). In Africa, there is a lack of a well-defined pantheon or mythology, the primary meaning and dogma of Kongo having to do with the soul (Ballard, 2005). An adherent to Kongo has a personal religious experience because he or she is concerned with the spirits of family members, either near or distant, not with the worship of a distant deity or vague abstraction. Interpretations of Kongo in the New World, impacted as they been by Catholicism and other African traditions, have in some cases adopted the worship of supernatural entities, or spirits, that may be entreated to intervene on behalf of the supplicant. In Haiti, “ Kongo rite” voodoo spirits include Achade Boko, Adoum Gidi, Grann Obatala, and many others (Barnes, 79).
The influence of Catholicism in Haitian voodoo is well-documented, but the Catholic impact on Kongo religion in Africa must not be overlooked. This relationship reaches back hundreds of years into the past, with the Portuguese having established a physical presence along the western coast of Africa by the late 15th century. The Catholicism that Portuguese sailors, traders and missionaries brought to the region has manifested itself in the Kongo religious tradition in many ways. One notable example is in its symbolism, which includes an adaptive use of the cross representing God at the top, the dead at the bottom and water in between the two. Given the overwhelming presence of slavery in the larger, trans-Atlantic world of Kongo, it is interesting to speculate as to the meaning of water in this cosmogram, a symbol of passage not only in this world but of the passage between life and death in the next life (Lanka, 2001).
The Christian cross was regarded by the Kongolese as a symbol of spiritual power and was “ integrated into Kongo ancestral cults and burial rituals. It was believed to contain
magic protective properties (TERA Gallery). In some parts of the New World, Kongo cosmography gave rise to the use of minkisi (sacred medicine) figurines, which were used in 19th-century Cuba by slaves against their masters (Thompson, year). In burial ceremonies, minkisi were sometimes “ interred” in order to awaken their power, “ thus highlighting a symbolic connection between the powers of minkisi and the graves of the dead” (Young, 148). These figurines could be used by the initiated as a means of communicating with ancestors and to invoke spirits (Ibid).
The journey of the spirit may also be symbolized using natural objects. In Haiti and parts of the U. S., a tree is planted on the grave site to signify the transition of the departed soul from this world to the world of the dead (Thompson, 1984). In the American South, an evergreen may be planted as a sign that existence does not end in death. “ In other words, the tree stands sentinel above the grave as the immortal presence of the spirit…” (Ibid). For the Kongolese, trees are physical containers of sacred space, much as the spiritually endowed minkisi figurines may serve as a medium for the sacred. The bottle tree tradition, a widespread custom throughout the American South, illustrates an interesting melding of the notion that tree and the inanimate object can bear supernatural powers. The bottle tree is a means of warding off evil spirits, and of preserving the abilities of those who have died (Thompson, 1984).
Continuity is an important underlying element in the ancestor worship that was transmitted from West and Central Africa to the United States, South America, Caribbean and other parts of the New World. The living sought to maintain a strong sense of hope and
spiritual renewal by communing with the departed, by preserving a part of them for the benefit of the living. As with all lasting socio-cultural phenomenon, the religious beliefs and spiritual practices of the people from regions in which Kongo was practiced and their descendants absorbed elements from outside influences, such as Catholicism, and applied them in ways that are both pragmatic and symbolically important. When slaves from Angola and Zaire reached the New World, they began adapting aspects of their new surroundings to their religious rituals but maintained the fundamental meaning of the Kongo religion.
The use of objects in burial practices served a range of purposes. A deceased person’s family or more distant descendants might seek to control the deceased, taking actions aimed at warding off a spirit that may or may not be welcome. Or it may be necessary to try to discover the departed one’s wishes concerning an important matter, something they were unable to communicate before death. The intervention of various objects, both natural and contrived, old and recently used by the departed, have continued to play an important role in the burial practices of African slaves throughout the Western hemisphere. The durability of the beliefs from the Kongo region is attributable to foundational concepts about an afterlife. Hundreds of years later, proof of the continued use of such rituals speaks to the remarkable durability of this belief system.
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Young, J. R. Rituals of Resistance: African Atlantic Religion in Kongo and the Lowcountry
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