Some of you might remember that I spent my teenage years living in a cemetery. My Dad became the sexton of Oak Ridge Cemetery in Sandwich when I was an 8th grader. Imagine my chagrin when we told me we would be moving to a cemetery…Oh, the agony of it..and the embarrassment! My horror was soothed when my parents informed me I would be getting the upstairs bedroom with the balcony..God, I loved that old house. Anyway, I developed a passion for strolling through graves and imagining the stories and lives involved. So, I was extremely excited to see the sign “Shiloh Cemetery”, with an arrow pointing down the road our campground is on. You can be sure we visited it…and I found a very unique thing or two about Florida cemeteries.
First thing we noticed were the shells, and then the “chairs”..Some were cement benches, ..and some were lawn chairs…and some were tall chairs…But, oh, the chairs. I looked it up and found that these are called “mourning chairs” and are a place for friends and family to rest when visiting their loved one’s grave. This cemetery tradition was never practiced in our cemetery, but once in a while you did come across a cement bench . Those white lawn chairs were slightly surprising..and the grave in the photo on the right, you can see a tall metal chair to the back left behind the grave in the shadow.
Above photos show Dennis standing next to one of the cement benches..and the right photo the bench is inside a chain linking fence you can notice in the foreground…
This is the first time I have ever seen this type of thing and it fascinates me..But so do the shells…
It turns out, the practice was quite common across the South in the Victorian era and not only in coastal areas. They seemed to be particularly plentiful in Texas, although there are quite a few across Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, Louisiana and Florida, most dated from the late 1800s to before 1910. According to "The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture”, seashells were a representation to slaves of returning to Africa: "They said the sea had brought them to their new country and the sea would return them to Africa when they died.However, many of the seashell grave covers are found in cemeteries where only white settlers are buried. Some theorize white people took the tradition from slaves while others have other ideas on the origins of seashell graves.”
Crossing over is another theory..”Placing a shell on a gravestone when visiting the site is an ancient custom and may in fact have several different meanings depending on the cultural background of the people placing the shells. The idea of crossing over a body of water to the promised land or crossing the River of Styx to the afterlife, the final journey to the 'other side' is also part of the symbolism of the shell."“
Protection for the dead is yet another idea.."The traditional method of marking a grave (for the less affluent) in South Alabama during the early years and especially during the Reconstruction era was to create an earth mound 12- to 18-inches wide and from 5- to 6-feet long. Needless to say, the rains washed these mounds away quite easily ... it was found that seashells, laid as one would lay shingles or a tile roof, would effectively protect the mound of earth from the rain and yes, the seashells were also decorative. "
And finally, “making do” is another explanation.”If a grave marker is found in a pioneer model, southern-folk cemetery, this is where the art of 'making do' is seen." What is missing most often from a pioneer southern folk cemetery is commercially produced gravestones or granite or marble...A common decorating practice in southern folk cemeteries still seen today is the use of shells. Conch shells, among others, are frequently seen. The shells are used to varying degrees, from a single one at the head of the grave to a line of them down the center of the grave or as a border. Sometimes the entire grave will be covered with shells."
Some of these are so old that the grass and earth is taking them over…I found this very sad, but probably there is no one alive left in the family to take care of them.
While I am on a history kick, our campground is 5 miles from a place once called Rosewood. This town is no longer there, as it was burned back in the 1920’s . I stopped at the roadside Historical Marker and took these two photos explaining what happened..Please read it..it is a horrible part of our history….They began the story on one side of the sign and finished it on the other ..
There was also a movie made and released in 1997 depicting the true story of this tragic time in our history..Here is a link to learn more about the movie..Rosewood, the movie.
So that is the end of my US History lesson for today..I never realized when we drove into this park that there were some hidden treasures to learn about and discover…We leave here Tuesday morning and drive to Pensacola where our son and his wife and her son Dylan are going to meet us. They will stay with us a few nights so they can visit the Naval Air Station Museum. Kelly was stationed on the USS JFK from 1988-1992, during the Persian Gulf War, so I am sure he will love this visit!!