We're still spending most of our time in the sun, but I've had time to do a little research. We drove back out to the Union Army cemetery today to document what I had observed. The first surprise was finding that someone had planted American flags for each soldier. The second was more disturbing. A huge limb of the live oak tree which sheltered many of the graves I had studied had fallen during Wednesday's high winds. Very sad and spooky-looking with the Spanish moss now draped over the tombstones. I've probably been reading too much Gullah folklore, but the limb almost looked like it had come down to protect the stones from further intrusion.
While I'm posting pictures, I want to include one of the hand-lettered stones so prevalent in this cemetery. This one is simply made of cement and lettered before it dried, probably with a pointed stick. It speaks powerfully of the need to remember the dead, even though there is no money for a proper stone.
But here's the real reason for this post -- an explanation of why some graves are decorated with conch shells.
In this image one shell lies on top of the concrete vault while another is on the ground next to the vault. In Gullah folklore there is a famous saying: "Da water brought we here; da water take we home." The first reference is to the slave trade that brought the Gullah ("'Gola") people to South Carolina from Angola. The second water reference reflects that death will take them home again. The conch shell is a strong symbol of water and therefore the shells that protect the grave are there to take the spirit of the dead home. (Remember when you were a kid? You held a conch shell to your ear and you could hear the ocean? It's the same symbolism.) I was moved to see these symbols on graves of people who died in the late 20th century. That ancestral longing is still powerful today.