Category Archives: Tradition & Culture

Web of Tradition

Tradition is perhaps the most powerful and most common force communities, institutions and individuals use to maintain social control. It is composed of the teachings, practices, beliefs, attitudes, prejudices and worldview of the elders and institutions of the community such as schools, churches, courts, law enforcement agencies, clubs, and any other entity that influences the beliefs and actions of the citizens of the community. These entities are commonly conservative in that they strive to protect valued traditions from change or the threat of change. This protection often takes the form of rejection of that which is new, risky, strange or different from the old beliefs or ways of doing things.

On the positive side tradition provides a sense of stability, security and continuity; while on the negative side it encourages lack of innovation, lack of change, growth, lack of advancement and it causes stagnation at both the individual and community level. It reflects fear of the unknown and lack of confidence in the community, individual, family or country to meet the challenges potentially created by change.

Communities, sub groups, and families exist along a continuum from those who rely heavily on “old wisdom” and religion to those whose traditions involve a mixture of entrepreneurship, adventure, exploration, risk taking, seeking new ideas and ways of doing things and embracing science. An example of those on the low end of this continuum is the Amish community. The Amish reject most attributes related to change, remaining at the low end of the continuum. They are reluctant to use modern methods of transportation, tools, electricity and other scientific advancements.

Those communities and people on the upper end of this continuum, such as those that seek to modernize and innovate—Silicon Valley comes to mind—are growing in number; however, none is completely free of the constraining web of tradition. All of us are attached to tradition to some degree, and many spend a considerable amount of energy struggling to loosen the bonds of it, while others welcome the bonds for the stability and security they provide or seem to provide. Since maintaining tradition in a changing world involves denial and a degree of willful blindness, the perceived security and stability is often illusory.

Tradition provides the soil (the culture) from which our values, attitudes and behavior spring and grow. It is important then that we examine our traditions for their soundness, richness and nurturing ability. As time passes we tend to view our traditions as sacred or at least all wise. The fond memories of those who passed the tradition to us are incorporated into the traditions making them more sacred, powerful and less open to objective critique. Tradition is often its own worst enemy. It provides the culture that produces our values, but often not the freedom and nurture that allows growth and fruitful expression.

Except for theologians, historians are the professionals who are the most entangled in the web of tradition. They still today struggle with the myth that Columbus was the first to discover America. Many historians still advance the myth that Abe Lincoln was honest and benevolent.

The web of a spider is so designed that when prey hits it the spider knows instantly where the victim is located. The web vibrates, alerting the spider that immediately takes action. So it is with the historian who shakes the web of tradition by venturing into new evidence that is contrary to the traditional teaching. Peers review material to be published and prevent its publication when possible if it challenges the web of tradition. An attempt to publish contrary material is an early warning signal to the keepers of the web that traditional beliefs are about to be questioned. When contrary material slips by the keepers, they are quick to review and critique the new approach. This often stops or severely hinders the career of the historian – now considered a “renegade”. The larger result is that the tradition is preserved because many scholars do not wish to risk their careers by challenging it.

The above is mild compared to what happens in the religious community—especially in the community of fundamentalist Christians.

Depending on the flavor of the religious groups prevalent in the community, one who jiggles the strands/bonds of the web will be subjected to an array of measures intended to keep him inside the religious/social prison of the brotherhood.1 These measures include among others: shunning, visitation from the elders, public humiliation, denunciation, excommunication, expulsion and, in earlier days, burning at the stake.

The power of religious tradition is nowhere better illustrated than in the prohibition among a range of religions against eating certain foods. Jews and Muslims cannot eat pork or certain seafood; some Christians and Muslims cannot drink alcoholic beverages. There are many more such “customs”, preserved by tradition, from ancient times. In a period of meat shortage in Europe the Pope decreed that no meat was to be eaten on Fridays—only fish. The purpose of the decree was economic—not at all religious. Over time it became a religious observance. This prohibition was finally removed in the early 1950s, long after it had served its purpose. This edict had long since become a sacred duty to Catholics, a large portion of whom were upset and, for a period, resisted the Pope’s removal of this prohibition. No doubt some still eat only fish on Fridays.

Religion is basically a closed system and those traditions that are grounded in religion are therefore trapped in a closed system. A closed system is one that has no intake or out put. Such systems are often compared to a rock while open systems are compared to a living organism. The difference is easily seen. A rock experiences virtually no change while a living organism is constantly growing and changing. Christians like to use the rock as a metaphor to describe their church/religion.

Stated another way religion is closed because it teaches absolute commandments, total obedience to a prescribed way of life, absolute truth spoken by a God that never changes; it proclaims truth.2 Science, on the other hand, is an open system because it questions ideas, propositions, hypotheses, theories; it tests these theories and admits error, accepts, refines or abandons them based on the evidence. It invites and often demands questioning and change; it seeks truth. If science did not encourage questioning and change we would still practice bloodletting.

Fundamentalists look to Jehovah as the model for refusal to change; he is to them the ultimate guardian of tradition. Therefore, current keepers of the tradition feel justified in doing what ever it takes to assure that old, irrelevant and harmful traditions continue to prevent personal growth and development.

There are those today who seek a return to the traditional values, laws and practices of the Old Testament; they believe these “laws” were dictated by Jehovah, are infallible and apply forever. Most moderate fundamentalists believe this but do not act on it, while the more extreme Muslims and many groups of Christians do act on it or plan to act on it. Among those ready to act are the Dominionists (Christian Reconstructionists), The New Apostolic Reformation, and others of the “C” street gang in Washington, DC., as examples.3 The Dominionists wish to have dominion over America first and then the world; all under Old Testament laws. Radical Islamists seek the same goal as do the Dominionists.

It is an Islamic tradition to not portray Mohammad’s likeness. So when a cartoonist in a faraway country draws a cartoon depicting   him the web shakes all the way to a middle eastern group who considers itself the keeper of the tradition, and they kill or try to kill the cartoonist.  The web stops shaking until the spider is forgotten.

Meanwhile back in America the so-called Religious Right radical counterpart to these radical Islamists are busy with their own brand of web keeping. They are doing their best to reunite church and state, as in days of old, with the goal of the church taking control of the state and eventually the world.

Without doubt the Inquisition conducted by the Catholic Church was the most notorious web-keeping project in the history of mankind. The central thrust of the Inquisition was to root out heresy—that is, stopping anyone from shaking the web of tradition of the church. Hundreds of thousands of so-called heretics were imprisoned, tortured and eventually burned at the stake. Then their property was taken from them and their families were left destitute. Some who had died before the Inquisition knew about their crime, were excavated and their remains burned at the stake. Their property that had been dispersed to relatives was confiscated by the church, divided between the local politicians, priests and the Pope.

Can there be any more explicit web keeping than that? The message was clear—“disagree with traditional teachings and you will be next.”

These vignettes of Islam and Christianity represent only a few groups out of many that used or still use their traditions in ways that retard the freedom and growth of their members and endanger us all.

This puts in perspective the courage of those who faced death or other punishments in pursuit of truth – Newton and Galileo come to mind.

The above narrative seems rather extreme, but on a daily basis today we struggle with the web of tradition in America

Tradition is passed to us in many ways but primarily through verbal communication. It is a method of civilizing us and is perhaps indispensable in performance of that role. Yet the evidence is overwhelming that there are major problems with our way of grounding our traditions. Yes, we are civilized to a degree, but we still commonly reject, discriminate against, impoverish and kill each other. We still abuse the land, waterways and environment. We still imprison ourselves in a web keeping system that is largely out of harmony with our current situation. In short, it is not working well for us in America or the world. Why? What is the problem?

The problem is that our traditions are grounded in religions and these religions use their God to buttress traditions of inflexibility, absolutes, intolerance of ideas, intolerance of behaviors that do not conform. Never mind that their God is vengeful, selfish, egotistical, jealous and prone to kill those who do not worship him only; surely not one to emulate. Never mind that religion is by its nature a closed system proclaiming truth—not seeking it.

Heretofore religions have claimed the right to teach morality, ethics and values; and they have been marginally successful in performing this task, but other factors such as scientific advancements that reveal their lack of relevance have overtaken them. Their rigidity, fear of change and fear of loss of control over the populace has become their worst enemy. Many religions are now fighting among themselves, so they are becoming progressively ineffective and irrelevant.

The secular world has historically ceded to religion the role of passing tradition to the populace.

What then is the solution?

The solution is that secular society must claim an increased measure of responsibility for selecting among a rich variety of traditions, shorn of myth, doctrine, superstition and fear to promulgate. This means that an objective program would be promulgated as an open system. The system would be taught to all public school students. It would include the teaching of values, ethics, morality and all aspects would be open for discussion. Expenditure of taxpayer money for private and religion-based schools would no longer be permitted. All efforts to merge church and state would be stopped.

End Notes

1. Marler, Don C. Imprisoned in the Brotherhood, 1973. Out of print.

2.Don C. Marler, “The Jehovah Model.”  http://www.donmarler.com

3.Don C. Marler  “Christian Reconstructionism: The Christian Taliban”  http://www.donmarler.com

Note: If the URL doesn’t work google — DonMarler:Iconoclast

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Grave Houses: A Review

[This article was presented in different format at the Second Annual Conference of the Redbone Heritage Foundation in Natchitoches, La. (September, 2006).  The relevance to Redbones is that the Redbones of southwest Louisiana have a tradition of maintaining their cemeteries well, and the cemetery featured here has the most grave houses in the U.S, and is used by them].

Background

In order to understand the grave house phenomena it is necessary to look at the origins of, and influences on, funerary practices in America. Nowhere are the problems of transmission of history and custom by oral methods alone more evident than in our funerary practices. The problems of oral transmission have been well documented. Oral transmission is highly dependent upon such factors as the differing perceptions of the individuals involved, the emotional nature of the subject, changes in circumstances and therefore in the customs developed to deal with these changes, and the great expanse of time involved.

In early America the weakness of the oral history method was exacerbated by the melding of customs from many countries and religions. These customs migrated to America from Africa, Europe, the Middle East and with the Amerindians. Many of these customs grew out of Paganism—and passed to us through the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans.

Catholic cemeteries in America today are considered sacred and are elaborately adorned with statues, emblems, artifacts and icons.

Protestant cemeteries are not so adorned with few muted exceptions such as an emblem of a dove, lamb, bible or organizational affiliation. John Wesley said that consecration of burial grounds was a “… mere Romanish superstition.” This belief is reflected in the use of secular names such as: Little Hope and Dark Corner.1 My own survey of Vernon Parish, La. cemeteries reveals that of 123, only 14 are, by name, church related.2 Many non-Indian burials from early times are on private grounds for various reasons, not the least of which is that many people on the frontier were little concerned with religion. And if they were concerned established cemeteries were often far away. Funeral services, if they were held, were sometimes delayed for months or years until a minister came to the area.

Some common practices from Paganism can be seen in the following:

  1. Burials on high hills or slopes predate Christianity,
  2. Flowers and evergreen were used in the Pagan religion—including planting roses and other flowers in burial places and their use in funeral services. The rose was associated with the Mediterranean Mother Goddess, cedar trees (tree of death) was associated with the Cedars of Lebanon.3
  3. Burial east and west; feet to the east. In the American South outlaws were sometimes buried north and south.
  4. The wife is buried to the South of the husband.

Flowers were not used at funerals in England and America until the 1800s, and then used over the objections of Christian leaders.4 Another Pagan holdover is placing shells on graves. Pagans being concerned with fertility rites used the shell and up-right stone marker as symbolic of the female and male genitalia respectively.

Grave houses have evolved over time from cave burial to pyramids, our own grave houses, sepulchers and mausoleums.

Grave Houses in America

As stated above, grave houses in America were influenced by Pagan religion and also African and Amerindian beliefs and practices. They have been found in Africa, Scandinavia, Europe and all over North America. Most of the surviving ones are in the southeastern part of the U.S. and the upper South. The Talbert/Pierson Cemetery in Vernon Parish, La. is reported to contain the largest number of grave houses of any cemetery in the U.S.

Considering the above background it should not be a surprise that our customs and practices have outlived our knowledge of the meaning of those customs. Not much is known about the original purpose of grave houses and the current purposes seem to have evolved to fit the conditions of society in America.  Some ideas about the purposes seem to be guesses or rationalizations to cover lack of knowledge of the real or original purpose.

Some stated purposes are to:

  1. Keep livestock and wild animals off the graves. This is attributed to the days of open range for livestock. It ignores that the cemetery could have been fenced with less effort than erecting and maintaining grave houses.
  2. Keep rain off the grave.
  3. Provide shade and a resting place for family members.
  4. Provide a memorial to loved ones–usually babies or older honored    persons.
  5. Provide a status symbol for the dead person.
  6. Give comfort to the spirit of the dead.
  7. Provide a home for the spirit of the dead. Provisions for the journey of the dead could be left unmolested.

At the Talbert-Pierson Cemetery, it was in the past, a strong custom to build the grave house before nightfall on the day of the funeral. This custom suggests forgotten purposes.

Grave houses are made from local materials. In Appalachia they are likely to be made of rock or wood. In East Texas and Louisiana they were mostly made of cypress. Cypress boards, rived by hand, covered some but most are covered with what was then called tin–a metal roof. Some had a roof only, others were totally enclosed with windows, curtains, etc., but most of the ones made of wood had pickets and a gate. Most cover one or two graves, but as many as six have been observed.

Many grave houses are neglected today and they are disappearing; some are maintained by family members. The Talbert/Pierson Cemetery grounds are maintained by Parish (County) prisoners, but the grave houses are still maintained by family members.

Two members of the Talbert family who live near the Talbert/Pierson Cemetery, Susan Talbert Bass and her mother Sarah Talbert, were interviewed for information on the grave houses. Susan recently lost a son who had a young family, and a grave house is planned for him.  When asked why it was not built before sundown on the day he was buried she said that the tombstone had yet to be put in place by heavy equipment and the grave house would be built around it later. Perhaps this is another bit of evidence that times and circumstances change, and customs match the change.

Both of these ladies said they would like a grave house when they die “if the family will do it for me”.  This statement suggests that there is still a strong value placed on grave houses by this family even though they have lost track of the original purpose of the houses.  And it suggests that they are hopeful but uncertain about the future of grave houses in the current culture.

Terry Jordan in his book, Texas Graveyards: A Cultural Legacy, has a wonderful summary statement with which I will close.

The traditional southern cemetery, then, contains a disorderly array of European, African and Amerindan (sic) material culture. In the main, the customs and artifacts displayed are pagan, and almost without exception, the original symbolic meaning is unknown to … the people who maintain these graveyards. They have no knowledge of the ancient fertility cults and animism that provided the individual elements of their funerary culture. They do not know they are perpetuating millennia-old practices.

The message of the folk cemetery, for those who would read it, is that there is a lot of European, a fair amount of African, and more than a trace of Indian in all southerners, regardless of their skin color. In the cultural sense the people of the South have much in common with each other. For three centuries the three groups exchanged ideas and genes, creolizing the culture to a remarkable degree. Nowhere is that blending more apparent than in places we have set aside for our dead. These traditional graveyards are not merely repositories for our dead, but museums full of reminders from our ancient past and distant, diverse ancestral homelands.

Endnotes:

  1. Terry G. Jordan, Texas Graveyards:  A Cultural Legacy ( Austin: University of Texas Press, 1982), p. 33.
  2. Jane Parker McManus, L’est We Forget,    (Alexandria, La. Parker Enterprises,  1995), and Don C. Marler, Redbones of Louisiana, (Dogwood Press  Hemphill, 2003), p. 255.
  3. Op.cit., Jordan.
  4. J. Mitford, The American Way of Death, (New York. Simon and  Schuster, 1963). Also see James K. Crissman, Death and Dying in Central Appalachia, (Chicago, University of Illinois Press, 1994).
  5. Op. cit., Jordan, pp. 39-40

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