Why Do We Place Shells on Tombstones?

by MSO
a tomb covered with seashells in a cemetery in Tel Aviv

A tomb covered with sea shells in the Trumpeldor cemetery in Tel Aviv. 

Walk through any cemetery, old or new, in the world and you will find shells on tombstones or decorating the earth around them. Where did this practice come from?

Aphrodite was the Greek goddess of love and fertility her counterpart, the Roman goddess Venus. The myths say she was born from sea foam and then reached the shores of the earth in a sea shell. The shell was regarded by pagans as a source of life. Though the outside of a shell is hard and inanimate, the inside is soft and alive which can be an analogy for a human who passes away. The body’s dead shell is only a covering for the soul that is alive within.

Anthropologists have found beads made from shells in North Africa and Israel dating back 100,000 years. Shells were not only used as ornaments but were fashioned into tools, musical instruments and were even used as currency. In the 17th and 18th century shell collecting became an obsession. In Amsterdam in the 18th century some sea shells sold for more than a painting by one of the Dutch masters and they even inspired an entire art movement – the French Rococo and the Italian Baroque periods. Shells adorned walls and artists adapted the curvatures and intricate shapes of the shells in their art and architecture.

Simply put, people of those eras believed that shells were a gift from God due to the intrasacies He used in creating them. The spiral shapes of many shells became a symbol for taking steps closer to God and eventually eternal life. And let’s not forget the pearly gates of heaven that, according to Revelations, are made from a single pearl which of course comes from inside the shells of oysters and scallops. From the mythical, sea shells have become religious symbols.

The first instances that shells were used to adorn graves was in the Bakongo region in Africa. Anthropologists in the 1800s described graveyards where nearly every grave was surrounded by shells of all different types. The Bakongo belief is that the shell encloses the soul and they have a prayer that says, “As strong as your house you shall keep my life for me. When you leave for the sea, take me along, that I may live forever with you.” The shell became the vessel that carried the soul across the big water (or the River Styx) to eternal life. Even today shells are still used by their descendants and their belief is that the sea brought us and the sea shall take us back.

In the 9th century many Christians wore a scallop shell which they took after making the pilgrimage to the Shrine of St. James of Compostella in Spain. It was looked on as proof that they had made the pilgrimage. Soon this practice spread to other pilgrimages as well. The shell also became a symbol of baptism in Christianity and still today many baptismal fonts are often shaped as the shell of a scallop.

The conch shell was held sacred by many cultures. In Buddhism the shell’s call could awaken one from ignorance, in Chinese Buddhism it signifies a prosperous journey while in Islam the shell’s represents hearing the divine word.

So as we place shells on a grave or cement them in permanently they are meant as a symbol that ensures a safe journey is made to that unknown shore where everlasting life is possible. Loose shells placed on a tombstone or dropped on the ground around it are also a visible reminder that the person buried below continues to be remembered and honored by those still living.

Photo by: Eman – wikipedia


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