While traipsing through coastal North Carolina graveyards, you’ll notice two things: seashells & tombstones. It doesn’t matter if you’re two minutes from the ocean or thirty; you’ll see shells in just about every cemetery you visit. We found a ton of cockleshells on the graves at the Old Smithville Burying Ground. It’s certainly charming, but why do visitors leave seashells behind for their loved ones, and where did this custom originate?
The practice of leaving seashells on tombstones is connected to several cultures and religions across the world. Two of those can be directly linked to the American South:
Seashells & Christian Symbolism
Scallop shells were used to pour water in ancient Christian baptisms; some believe Christ was baptized this way. Later, St. James used the scallop shell during his pilgrimage to beg for food and water. His followers wore the scallop shell as a symbol of pilgrimage. This led to the practice of leaving a scallop or cockleshell at a gravestone to represent a person’s Christian journey through life.
African Customs & Seashells
African Americans have a similar custom born out of their voyage to the New World. Enslaved Africans associated the seashell with their return to Africa. They believed the ocean took them away from their home, and it would return them after their deaths. Loved ones began leaving shells behind at graves as a symbol of safe passage to the other side.
With most of my life spent in Wilmington, seeing shells on tombstones is nothing new to me. I’ve left my fair share, sometimes carrying them all the way to Canton to be left for my daddy and grandparents. For me, it’s been a case of monkey see, monkey do. I place seashells on loved ones’ tombstones because those before me did.
Do you leave seashells at the graves of loved ones? If not, have you seen them in cemeteries? I’d love to hear about it in the comment section below!