Tombstone Tuesday – Seashells on Texas Graves

Are seashells on Texas graves merely for decoration or does this fascinating practice have a deeper meaning?

In his book Texas Graveyards: A Cultural Legacy, Terry G. Jordan concludes that the practice is too widespread to just be for decoration.  He writes that seashells are used as a grave decoration in 48 percent of the cemeteries in the Big Thicket of Southeast Texas, 44 percent of those in the Piney Woods of Northeast Texas and 44 percent of the Cross Timbers graveyards in North Texas.

Theories About the Use of Seashells on Graves

I’ve found many different theories and the practice does not seem to be limited to any one particular culture in Texas.

Comfort Cemetery - Shells

Seashells decorate many of the graves in the cemetery in Comfort, Texas.

  • One theory suggests that the shell motif was used as a symbol of eternal life.
  • Some historians feel that the custom originated in Europe and may go back to pre-Christian Mediterranean times. Jordan writes that one of the symbols of the supreme ancient Mediterranean female  deity was the shell. One of the duties of this mother goddess was to “oversee the dead, and, through her supreme powers of fertility, to assure their rebirth into the afterlife.” Placing a shell on a grave was a way to ask the goddess to let the deceased be reborn. In Roman times, Jordan explains that the “shell funerary custom spread as far as Britain and northern Spain, easily making the transition from pagan to Christian in those lands.”
  • Yet another belief is that the seashell contains the soul’s eternal presence.

Central Texas German Communities

The practice of decorating graves with seashells can be seen throughout the German communities of central Texas. The author of A Brief History of the Zion Lutheran Cemetery believes German immigrants  got the idea of using sea shells when they stayed on the Texas coast upon arriving from Europe.

Comfort Cemetery - Headstone with Shells

Seashells decorate this headstone in the Germany community of Comfort, Texas.

Graves by Craftsman Henry Theodore Mordhorst

German-born cement craftsman Henry Theodore Mordhorst, who lived in New Braunfels, Texas, from 1900 until his death in 1928, added his own style to the use of seashells. Cockleshells ordered from Rockport and Galveston were transported to New Braunfels by train in big barrels. Mordhorst pressed straight rows of shells into round-topped grave mounds of wet cement. The entire mound was painted with white or black paint.

Comfort Cemetery Shells

The rounded graves topped with straight rows of cockleshells in Comfort, Texas, were either fashioned by German-born craftsman Henry Theodore Mordhorst or by an imitator.

Resources

Comfort Cemetery Shells

The seashells on this grave in Comfort, Texas, form the shape of a heart.

Tombstone Tuesday

Tombstone Tuesday is a daily blogging theme used by many genealogy bloggers to help them post content on their sites. Find out more about daily themes at Geneabloggers.com.

Related posts:

Comments

  1. This was very interesting–I actually found it while trying to identify some seashells found on South Padre Island :-)

    I was in Comfort on a photo safari two weeks ago, and since then I’ve wondered if I should have tried to visit the cemetery. I see now I should have!

    Incidentally, Terry Jordan, who wrote the cemetery book you cite here, was a cousin of mine, but I never really knew him.

    Thanks for this interesting blog!

  2. Look up shells on indian mounds.. it was a practice of indian peoples to place shells on the graves of loved ones. http://www.forgotten-florida.com/indians.htm It is still fairly common to see grave mounds in Magnolia cemitary with shells placed on the grave like in your photo. Only they are in dirt, not concrete. My Uncle, in his 80′s says that it is common for porrer famelies.

  3. Blue Eyes and Bluebonnets says:

    Hi John and Susan! Thank you for visiting and for your nice comments.

    John – if you are ever back in Comfort, pay the cemetery a visit. We visited in the morning and there were deer grazing. There are also some interesting Woodmen of the World monuments that I haven’t seen anywhere else.

    Susan – thanks for the link and the information. It really is an interesting practice.

  4. Valerie Ballard says:

    I have pictures from the cemetary in Hempstead, TX that has many grave sites covered in the cockleshells as described above. Some look extremely old and weathered. I will post on flickr. Thanks for the information as we were quite curious as to there origin. Being of German decent but from the original New York influx back in the 1700′s, made this all the more interesting.

  5. I was in New Braunfels yesterday photographing gravestones in the Hortontown Cemetery there and noticed the shell graves. In trying to find some explanation for the shell graves, I found your blog and this article. Thanks. This makes me want to visit the Comfort Cemetery.

    Beverly

  6. I recently found domed cement grave markers covered with seashells. A friend said these were for immigrants that had “crossed the seas to arrive here”. Great story, but is it true. I’ve found no other reference to this practice? Any insights?

  7. The idea of placing shells at a burial site is actually a very ancient one that can be traced back to first known civilizations of mankind. It was thought by the Sumerians of Mesopotamia that first their was the primeval sea, which represented the goddess Nammu, and from here she created the Heavens and the earth. Later, Nammu is said to have created humans from clay. She was viewed as the source and essence of all life. The shell actually represented eternal life or rebirth and was usually placed on burial sites asking the goddess to allow the dead to be reborn or to enter the after life.

    Given that civilization began in Mesopotamia and then migrated out to other sections of the world, traditions such as these would be carried everywhere to evolve and/or transform. The use of the cockleshell on graves can be found throughout the Southern region of the US. This was a Elizabethan tradition that many sailors of the time still placed faith in. With Initial US landings being 1513 in St. Augustine, Fl and 1526 along the South Carolina coast, these sailors easily carried their traditions with them allowing them to spread through the Southern areas as more settlers arrived. Slaves also reinforced the tradition as many of them were from the coastal villages of Africa.

  8. Gabrielle says:

    Thank you for this oh so lovely site. I love it I am doing a project about symbols and gravestones in a historic cemetery in Dallas I got to William B Travis. THANK YOU its a very lovely article amazing I just can’t say enough about it!! I. LOVED. IT.

Speak Your Mind

*

Top