Virginia State Senator Richard Stuart and his wife, Lisa Stuart, were walking along the Potomac River four years ago when they discovered an odd-looking rock jutting out on the water’s edge. Upon closer examination, the senator could identify that it was not just a random rock occurring naturally but one which was purposely forged at the hands of a human. Sen. Stuart took a good look, and said to his wife, “I think that’s a headstone.”
This particular discovery was not an aberration. The more the senator and his wife searched the area, more headstones popped up. The senator soon realized that these headstones were scattered over a two-mile stretch of the Potomac. The senator enlisted Virginia historians to examine the headstones, and they came to the conclusion that the headstones came from upriver, specifically Washington D.C., the nation’s capital. The historians determined that the gravestones originally marked graves at the Columbian Harmony Cemetery. This cemetery was unlike most of the cemeteries in D.C. in that it was a historic burial place of African Americans. The Washington Post describes the Columbian Harmony Cemetery as, “the final resting place for a century’s worth of D.C.’s most illustrious Black citizens. Among them: Elizabeth Keckley, confidante of Mary Todd Lincoln; Philip Reid, who helped create the statue of Freedom atop the U.S. Capitol dome; and scores of Black Civil War veterans from the Union Army. . . . But it wasn’t just famous names. Some 37,000 people were laid to rest there between 1859 and 1960,” (Oct. 25, 2020). Columbian Harmony was D.C.’s first burial site for free Blacks when it was established in 1925. It’s thirty acres of land was the city’s most engaged burial ground for Blacks between 1880 and 1920.
Columbian Harmony Cemetery is among more than five cemeteries in Washington D.C. that were dismantled, sold, and redeveloped for other projects in the past century. Owned by several families, Columbian Harmony was met with financial distress during the 1950s. Louis Bell, a developer, purchased the land in 1960, and promised to relocate the graves to Prince George’s County, MD. It was discovered later that not all of the burials were transferred as agreed. The city bought the property from Louis Bell in 1967, and unearthed coffins and bones during work on the lot in 1979. What of the headstones? The headstones, however, had been treated as scrap by Louis Bell. Apparently, the former owner of Sen. Stuart’s farm in Virginia brought several truckloads of the headstone to buttress the shoreline of his property, explaining why the senator found headstones all along the Potomac. Sen. Stuart bought the land in 2016. According to the Washington Post article, the original graves were relocated to the National Harmony Memorial Park in Landover, MD. Most of the transferred remains are left unidentified.
The governor of Virginia, Ralph Northam, in collaboration with the governor of Maryland, Larry Hogan, took an interest in righting this wrong, and has since commissioned a non-profit organization to remove the headstones from the river and send the headstones to Landover.
The failed transfer of the graves and the wanton disposal of the headstones is never acceptable. But, it happened. And, my guess is that it went through without objection because these were graves of minority Black Americans. No one spoke up. Could there have been another reason? Michael L. Blakey, director of the Institute for Historical Biology at William & Mary, said of the scrapping of headstones, that, “It is dehumanizing.” He equates the destruction of Black cemeteries with the brutality of the police towards African Americans, saying, “Racism is about dehumanizing people so that they can be dealt [sic] without empathy. . . . This is just another manifestation of a knee on a neck for eight minutes or a body left in the middle of a street for four hours.”
I am sure that most everyone will agree that headstones that have once graced these graves should be handled with the greatest deference. Gravestones indicate who is buried, the date of their birth, and the date of their death at the very least. As such it provides important information. But, I believe that gravestones represent much more. When our loved ones are no longer with us, we associate one’s gravestone, to some degree, as a physical representation or presence of the deceased. With this, I would like to bring your attention to the o-ihai (位牌) in Buddhism, which maintains a very similar role.
The o-ihai may be nothing more than a wooden plaque to Non-Buddhists. But, this wooden plaque is a physical reminder of a person who was once among us, and who we have now lost. The deceased’s Buddhist name is written or carved on the front of the o-ihai. The deceased’s legal name, date of death, and age are usually scribed on the back of the o- ihai. The deceased will more than likely have a grave. But, an o-ihai will always prepared as well. While a grave contains a deceased’s cremated ashes, the o-ihai is placed in the Buddhist alter in the descendant’s home. The o-ihai in their homes are just as revered as the deceased’s grave itself. In the morning, devout Buddhists would put their hands together, face the altar containing the o-ihai of their ancestors, and speak and pray to them just as their ancestors were physically present before them.
As humans, we are deficient in our faculty of envisioning the spirits of our ancestors. The o-ihai resolves this shortcoming. As such, the o-ihai is an important representation of our deceased loved ones. The Buddhist name on the o-ihai are representations of the Buddha that their ancestors have become. Commoners in Japan of old owned almost nothing. Their only treasure was the o-ihai in their alters. If a fire ever broke out, the first thing that they would grab before escaping would be the o-ihai of their ancestors.
Why would someone place the o-ihai above their other possessions? It may be difficult to understand the subtlety of this, but it shows how vital one’s ancestors are. Buddhists feel that our own existence is dependent on our ancestors, even after their passing. No matter how old we get, our parents are still our parents even if they are deceased. Humans are basically very weak. We look to support from those around us, but I believe that we also receive guidance and protection from those who have gone before us. We look to our ancestors in our most darkest moments, simply because we have total confidence in them. They know us completely, and we behold them with the greatest of trust, that they are sincere in helping us. The o-ihai may appear to be a mere wooden plaque, but from therein emanates the instruction and assurance from the loved ones with whom we have an intimate connection.