Actual shell fragments left on gravestones in pioneer cemeteries represent the journey through death and rebirth. Shells that are not part of the gravestone were left there to signify that the deceased had not been forgotten.
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In localities near the sea, entire graves were covered with shells because this product was cheap and readily available.
Although not a common symbol the shell most often used is a scallop shell which represents the baptism of Christ. Many baptismal fonts are often built in the form of a scallop shell.
It is also a traditional symbol of the Crusades.
This large scallop shell was designed by the deceased, Ransom Cook, some years before his death.
The art form of a child cradled in a scallop shell was popular in North America during the 19th century. Sears, Roebuck and Company had a contract with a Vermont marble producer to sell the shell headstone by mail order.
The conch shell was revered by many cultures as a symbol of reincarnation and wisdom. In Buddhism, the shell’s call can awaken one from ignorance, in Chinese Buddhism it signifies a prosperous journey; and in Islam the shell represents hearing the divine word. People in the Bakongo area of Africa believe that the shell encloses the soul (Pagans also held this same belief regarding the shell as a source of life.)
Following the two World Wars, discussion and agreement by Australia, Canada, India, New Zealand, South Africa and the United Kingdom (member countries of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission) on the burial of the dead created a standardized format encompassing burial sites, layout and size of the gravestones, and the legend on headstones.
Commonwealth countries built burial sites close to combat zones to preserve the link with the battlefield, whereas the United States and France created huge regional cemeteries intended to make a significant impression on people’s minds.
The graves were arranged in straight rows and designed to be perpetual and permanent. The material used in the headstones varied due to the requirement of a weather resistant substance or occurrence of earthquakes.
The standard used ensured that every grave was marked with a headstone, originally 76 centimetres (30”) tall, 38 cm (15”) wide, and 7.6cm (3.0”) thick, with upper case lettering designed by MacDonald Gill.
Each stone contained the national emblem or regimental badge, rank, name, unit, date of death and age of each casualty. In the case of burials of Victoria Cross or George Cross recipients, the regimental badge was supplemented by the Victoria Cross or George Cross emblem.
An appropriate religious symbol was included; most often a cross denoting Christianity, and sometimes a personal dedication chosen by relatives.
Mankind must put an end to war or war will put an end to mankind. J. F. Kennedy
Far away in a distant land, Suddenly struck by death’s strong hand A loving son, strong and brave, Lies buried in a soldier’s grave.
No one knows the silent heartache, Only those can tell Who have lost their loved ones Without saying one farewell. We pictured him safely returning, We longed to clasp his hand, But God has postponed the meeting, Till we meet in a better land.
No one knows the silent heartache,
only those that have lost can tell
Of the grief that’s borne in silence
For the one we loved so well.
And when he gets to Heaven, To Saint Peter he will tell: ‘Just another soldier reporting, Sir. I’ve served my time in Hell.’ Edinburgh Castle, Edinburgh, Scotland
Do not ask us if we miss him, There is such a vacant place; Can we e’er forget that footstep, And that dear familiar face.
No loved one stood beside him to bid a last farewell, No word of comfort could he leave to those he loved so well. We little thought his time so short in this world to remain, Nor that from when his home he went he would never return again.
He marched away so bravely, His young head proudly held; His footsteps never faltered, His courage never failed, There on the field of battle, He calmly took his place, He fought for King and Country, And the honour of his race.
…And decades later, the men and women who served are still remembered and accorded the same burial.
Ile Sainte-Marie is a long, thin island off the coast of Madagascar with easy access to a popular maritime route between the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. With numerous inlets and bays, the island was the perfect location to hide ships. Known as the Island of Pirates it was a base for an estimated 1,000 pirates who lived in the Bay of Rogues.
The Pirate Cemetery is perched on a hilltop which is reached by walking on a plank to cross an inlet! Cyclone and other weather related damage over the centuries has eroded much of the engravings on the stone markers. Palm trees overlook the 30 gravestones that remain mostly from the 1800s. It is said that the large black tomb in the center of the cemetery is the final resting place of Captain Kidd buried upright as a punishment for his sins. A nice story but he was actually buried in England.
The skull and cross bones, internationally recognized as a symbol of piracy is not very prevalent. The ancient symbol of death was adopted by pirates on their black flags. When it appears on tombstones it simply means, “He’s dead.”
The slave trade began as an exchange for British goods on the West Coast of Africa where African men, women and children were shipped directly to the colonies in the New World.
When slaves died, plantation owners refused to allow them to be buried on valuable land, and for that reason, black cemeteries are often found in marginal areas of fields or forests. Graves were randomly dug and marked with daily objects that the spirit might need. In the south, they were also decorated with seashells and pebbles.
In North Carolina there are over 60 graves located at the edge of the woods in the Edwards-Franklin Cemetery. It was restored and dedicated by the Surry County Historical Society on 26 Aug 2010. During the dedication the names of 60 slaves found in historical records of the estate were read out.
A white marble Monument in Sautee Nacoochee, Georgia, honors descendants of Onesimus a runaway slave, whom the apostle Paul received to the faith of Christ. The Monument was placed near the slave graves in 1992 as a joint project of the Bean Creek Baptist Church and the Nacoochee Methodist Church to honor those buried and unknown.
In Woodcock Cemetery, North Attleboro, Massachusetts is the grave of a slave named Caesar. In memory of Caesar Here lies the best of slaves Now turning into dust; Caesar the Ethiopian craves A place among the just. His faithful soul has fled To realms of heavenly light And by the blood that Jesus shed Is changed from Black to White
January 15 he quitted the stage In the 77 year of his age. 1780
In Foxworth, Mississippi, is the grave of the world’s oldest man and last living slave. Reported to be 130 years old when he died, Sylvester MaGee claimed to have been a slave who fought for both sides in the Civil War. Although his claims are unverified, the county historical society memorialized him in the small churchyard of Pleasant Valley United Methodist Church.
Believed to have been the last surviving American Slave, MaGee was born in Carpet, North Carolina, and sold at Enterprise, Mississippi, at the age of nineteen. He is believed to have served in the Civil War at both the Siege of Vicksburg and Champion’s Hill. Few records exist to support his life’s claim, yet some have stated that the detail and clarity with which he recounted his life’s experiences would have been impossible without having experienced it first-hand. Though he did not like to recount the worst of his days gone by, he made it known that his faith helped him make it through.
This memorial is dedicated to Sylvester MaGee, perhaps the last citizen of the United States who possessed first-hand knowledge of both institutionalized Slavery and the Civil War.
Erected 2012 by the Marion County Historical Society Southern Monument Company
In Mount Vernon, Virginia, near the tomb of George Washington there is a slave burial ground containing 150 graves. Originally enclosed within a fenced area there is now a marker of Georgia marble inscribed: In Memory of the Many Faithful Colored Servants of the Washington Family, buried at Mount Vernon from 1760-1860. Their Unidentified Graves Surround This Spot 1929.
Listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places in August, 2012, the Contrabands and Freedman Cemetery is located at 1001 S. Washington St. in Alexandria, Virginia. Escaped slaves who were still the legal property of their masters were labeled as contrabands during the American Civil War and the military occupation of Alexandria. This classification prevented them from being returned to their masters and allowed them to work within the military in a variety of roles including soldiers and sailors.
Approximately 10,000 black slaves were routed to Britain to become servants to entitled society. Scipio Africanus became a servant to the seventh Earl of Suffolk. Loved by the young Earl and his wife he was treated like a son and was buried in St Mary’s churchyard, Henbury near Bristol, England when he died in 1720 at age 18 years. The gravesite is marked with a painted headstone and footstone with black winged effigies.
The grave markers were restored on April 2007. The epitaph on the headstone reads: HERE Lieth the Body of SCIPIO AFRICANUS Negro Servant to the Right Honourable Charles William Earl of Suffolk and Bradon Who died the 21st December 1729 Aged 18 Years.
The footstone is inscribed: I who was Born a PAGAN and a SLAVE Now Sweetly Sleep a CHRISTIAN in my Grave What tho’ my hue was dark my SAVIORS sight Shall Change this darkness into radiant light Such grace to me my Lord on earth has given To recommend me to my Lord in heaven Whose glorious second coming here I wait With saints and Angels Him to celebrate.
Some slaves did not survive the journey to new lands. This stone identifying Samboo is located near Glasson, Lancashire, England.
Here lies Poor SAMBOO A faithful NEGRO who (Attending his Master form the West Indies) DIED on his Arrival at SUNDERLAND.
Full sixty Years the angry Winter’s wave Has thundering dashed this bleak & barren Shore Since SAMBO’s Head laid in this lonely GRAVE Lies still & ne’er will hear their turmoil more. Fully many a Sand bird chirps upon the Sod And many a Moonlight Elfin round him trips Fully many a Summer’s Sunbeam warms the Clod And many a teeming Cloud upon him drips. But still he sleeps – till the awakening Sounds Of the Archangel’s Trump new Life impart Then the GREAT JUDGE his Approbation found’s Not on Man’s COLOUR but his – WORTH OF HEART. James Watson Scr. H. Bell del. 1796