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.
- 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.
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.
- Texas Graveyards: A Cultural Legacy, by Terry G. Jordan.
- Comfort Cemetery on Find A Grave.
- A Brief History of Zion Lutheran Cemetery.
- “The Decoration of Graves in Central Texas with Seashells,” by Sara Clark, in Diamond Bessie and the Shepherds, published by the Texas Folklore Society.
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