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Historic Cemetery Symbols: What do Seashells Mean?

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(photo by Tui Snider)
(photo by Tui Snider)

Inspired by a Pilgrimage

This week’s Historic Cemetery Symbols post was inspired by Rev. Dr. Raymont Anderson. I had the pleasure of interviewing him on a recent episode of Teal Gray Worldwide Radio. It was a lively interview; we discussed some deep stuff while having plenty of laughs along the way. (Check out the replay here: TGWW Radio: Rev. Dr. Raymont Anderson )

Afterwards, Raymont shared a link to a series of articles he wrote about a recent pilgrimage he took to the New York City. The Big Apple is probably not the first place to come to mind when you think of the word “pilgrimage,” but I invite you to read Ray’s take on it: Pilgrimage of Raymont Anderson.

As you can see, Ray uses the image of a scallop shell in his first article, which reminded me that I hadn’t yet written about the meaning of seashells at grave sites. As always, my upcoming Field Guide to Historic Cemetery Symbols will have a much more expanded version of this, but here’s the quickie version for this week:

(photo by Tui Snider)
(photo by Tui Snider)

What’s the meaning of seashells at a grave site?

Seashells are an ancient Christian symbol referring to religious pilgrimages and spiritual protection. During the Middle Ages, pilgrims often wore scallop shells. Seashells were also used to mark the path for those on a pilgrimage.

Here in Texas, I often see seashells in historic cemeteries. I’ve never actually seen a scallop shell, but a lot of times, I come across clam shells pressed into raised cement tombs. Occasionally, I find a headstone that has a shell on top of it – and it’s nearly always a conch shell. When a seashell has been left behind at a grave site and it not a part of the actual headstone, it means a loved one made a pilgrimage to the deceased’s grave, leaving a shell behind as a reminder of their visit.

 

(photo by Tui Snider)
(photo by Tui Snider)

Field Guide to Cemetery Symbolism:

I am currently creating a field guide to cemetery symbolism. Each Tuesday, I share a small snippet from my upcoming book. It’s my goal to create a handy-dandy pocket guide for taphophiles, genealogists, ghost hunters, and anyone else interested in the historic graveyard symbols that have become forgotten over the years.

What symbols are you curious about?

Let me know in the comments if there is a certain symbol that you are curious about. Also, if you would like to know when the cemetery symbolism guide is available for purchase, scroll down and sign up for my newsletter! I look forward to hearing from you!

Want to read more?

To read about more weird, offbeat, and overlooked places, check out my best selling travel guide: Unexpected Texas.
For ghost hunting hot spots, check out my best selling travel guide to haunted places: Paranormal Texas.
For a strange-but-true tale of Texas history, check out: The Lynching of the Santa Claus Bank Robber. Happy travels!

FREE Cemetery Symbols Guide:

Would you like a FREE guide to historic cemetery symbolism? If so, click the image below:

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Tui Snider having fun on a Texas road trip!
Tui Snider having fun on a Texas road trip!

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Published inCemeteries & SymbolismHistoric Cemeteries

11 Comments

  1. Steve Steve

    I have sometimes seen conch shells placed on or lying near old gravestones in cemeteries in central Scotland. They are all old cemeteries – 18th and 19th centuries, so not modern graves, and the conches themselves look very weathered so may have been there for a long time. So, here anyway, there is nothing in the practice being in any way related to Africa.

    • How interesting, Steve! Thank you for sharing that! Yeah, the more I look into the practice of leaving seashells at gravesites, the farther back the practice goes. I’d sure love to visit Scotland and see some historic burial grounds there, in person. Thank you so much for visiting my blog! :)

      • Gill Gill

        I walked the Necropolis in Glasgow today and can send some pics

        • Oh, very cool! I would love to see your pics. Could you email them to me at TuiSnider at gmail.com, pretty please? Thanks! :)

  2. Lola B Lola B

    White conch shells are also a symbol of Buddhism, and have been seen on Jewish gravestones, unlikely in relation to a Christian tradition.

    • Thank you, Kristen! I will read that article. Since first posting this blog entry, I’ve learned so much more about shells on grave
      sites. I was surprised by how far back the practice goes. And, fortunately, I do make mention of the African origins in my latest book (Understanding Cemetery Symbols.) It’s such a fascinating topic! Thanks again. :)

  3. I asssociate scallop shells with the pilgramages to Santiago de Compestela. Although I’ve never seen seashells in a cemetery, the Christian symbolism makes sense.

    • Tui Snider Tui Snider

      Hi, Ann! Well, now I’m going to have to read up on what pilgrimages to Santiago de Compestela are all about! Thank you for dropping by! :D

  4. I am so excited about your “Field Guide to Cemetery Symbolism”. I love strolling through graveyards and often wonder at the meaning of symbols used. Great post.

    • Tui Snider Tui Snider

      Thank you, Sarah! I love all the positive feedback I’m getting about this book. So encouraging to know I’m not alone in my passion for this subject. I *hope* to have it done by next March, but we shall see! :D

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