Conch shells – put one up to your ear and you can hear waves lapping upon the shore. A hundred miles inland from the Atlantic, the City of Richmond is not typically strewn with seashells. Amble through the underbrush of historic East End Cemetery, however, and you’ll notice a few of these unusual, if not charming decorations resting on some graves.
This conch shell sits at the foot of the Van Jackson family grave in East End. While other shells on surrounding plots are real, the Van Jackson conch is actually a concrete cast, dirty white and rough to the touch. It’s rather substantial as well, about the size of a human head and heavy enough to require two hands to pick it up.
Conch shells are not only admired for their beautiful colors and massive spiral shape; they are also useful tools. Indigenous peoples of the Caribbean and Latin America have used them for centuries to make powerful horn sounds by blowing through the tip like a trumpet. A skilled blower could communicate messages over large distances using conchs. To place a shell on the grave of a loved one could be a comforting symbol of communication – it reminds visitors that while the dead may seem distant, they’re still, in a way, contactable. It encourages mourners to “call” their lost loved ones, reach out to them and their image as they were in life. This outlook on death preserves the memory of the loved one in a way that is not so much lost in death as simply gone for a while.
A major reason East End has fallen into disrepair stems from its prominence as an African American cemetery and the history of racial tensions in the South. When examining these gravesites, it is vital to remember that enslaved people were not only Africans, but were people of color from multiple regions of the world, including the East Indies and Caribbean islands. These people kept their culture with them as they migrated, preserving it even in death. The Van Jackson conch possibly highlights a narrative of traditional coastal Afro-American or Caribbean American communities by honoring the custom of conch shells as a means of communication with those who have passed on.