Sword plants and the spirits in African and American graveyards

Date and Time: 
Monday, 12 May 2014 - 3:50pm to 4:10pm
Author(s): 
RICHARDS, Anthony - CARICOM Regional Organisation for Standards & Quality, Barbados

Scant regard has been given to questions of the contribution of the African genius to the ritual landscapes of the New World. The archaeological literature suggests that African Americans in the southeastern USA employed Yucca (Spanish bayonet) and lilies as grave markers in 19th-20th century cemeteries. The phrase “pushing up yucca” has been coined to describe these graveyards, and there was a Gullah belief that spiny plants restricted the movement of the spirits of the dead. Recent surveys of 50 cemeteries in 10 Eastern Caribbean countries found that yuccas were not common grave markers. However, other plants with lance-like leaves are prominent. Sanseiviera sp (Dracaenaceae) are ubiquitous. Cordyline fructicosa (Dracaenaceae) dominates cemeteries in the south, while amaryllids such Hymenocallis littoralis are more common in the northereastern islands.  These preferences are compared with published descriptions of the widespread traditional use of Dracaena arborea as a grave marker in West Africa.  Keywords: Yucca, Dracaena, grave markers,  ritual landscape, Americas