Category Archives: East End Cemetery

Calling on the Dead in East End Cemetery

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

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.

East End Cemetery – Mr. Benj Cameron

Walking the concrete path alongside the underbrush that is East End Cemetery, you wouldn’t think that burial grounds lie beyond the overgrown vegetation of its surrounding woods. Upon closer inspection, however, you can discern the subtle yet definitive markings of the African American remains buried on the neglected grounds.

With no clear pathways accessible for pedestrian use, visitors must trample through an obstacle course of unkempt ivy, fallen branches, and dead leaves in order to navigate the cemetery. For a graveyard, there is a disconcerting lack of actual gravestones at East End. Rather, the site is scattered with minute, simple grave markers — literal signs begging to take notice of the deceased buried underneath.

Among the many grave markers at East End were small, aluminum signs much resembling miniature license plates. One such sign belonged to a man named Benjamin Cameron:

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The pitiful aluminum marker, measuring less than a foot long and about six inches high, is in terrible condition. It’s quite literally bent out of shape with dents and dimples covering the surface, and barely hangs to the crooked aluminum pole loosely bolted to its backside. The aluminum itself has begun to corrode and collect dirt within the poorly manufactured crevices.

Its craftsmanship appears to lack personal attention and seems to be one of many other mass-produced items like it. The letters have been pressed onto the aluminum in a way that mimics changeable letter signs outside many primary schools, almost as if they are simply filling in blank spaces. The bottom of the plate is stamped with “Lightfoot Funeral Home, INC” as opposed to a specific carver or artisan, further insinuating its impersonal and mass-produced nature.

The lack of information on the “gravestone” is also disconcerting. For instance, “Benj’s” full name is truncated as a result of limited space. Additionally, there is only one date printed on the plate– presumably his death date– giving visitors no indication of how old he was when he passed away.

With not as much as a single symbol or brief epitaph, this plate prevents any visitors from distinguishing Mr. Benjamin Cameron from the masses buried around him. Forgoing elaborate structure, iconography, or specific placement, loved ones of Cameron simply wanted something– anything– to commemorate him after his passing. Though little is written on behalf of Mr. Benjamin Cameron, the absence of detailed information speaks volumes about the lack of attention and care his community received, much like the environment he now resides in.