Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography

Rancho Cemetery

with 44 comments


Yesterday we spent seven hours on a wildflower quest to the southeast and south of Austin. At the farthest point in our circuit, approaching the town of Nixon, I saw a sign for a cemetery. I followed the arrow and almost immediately encountered the Rancho Cemetery, named for the now-long-gone little town of Rancho. Happily covered with wildflowers the cemetery was, and I took several dozen pictures. The most interesting grave I found was the one shown here. To get a closer look at the seashells covering it, click the thumbnail below. The magenta flowers are phlox (Phlox drummondii) and the blue ones are sandyland bluebonnets (Lupinus subcarnosus), named for the sandy soil that’s common in that part of Texas. As I’ve said many times: would that all cemeteries were wildflower cemeteries. At least in central Texas a bunch of them are.



Update. Theresa Blackwell has provided a link to the informative article “Why Victorian-era Southerners created seashell graves and where you can still see them.” Jean Wilson has added that “these cement grave covers adorned with shells were common in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s in the South, particularly Texas and German settlements. Comal Cemetery in New Braunfels and Fischer Cemetery near Fischer (Canyon Lake area) have several that are attributed to Heinrich T. Mordhorst (1864-1928) who came to New Braunfels around 1900. These grave covers display Mordhorst’s attention to detail and individual style. On the domed covers, rows of shells form almost perfect lines, running from the head to the foot of the grave, and follow a distinct pattern attributed to Mordhorst.”



© 2023 Steven Schwartzman






Written by Steve Schwartzman

March 14, 2023 at 5:01 PM

44 Responses

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  1. Was there an inscription? There must be an interesting story behind the clam shells.

    Steve Gingold

    March 14, 2023 at 5:24 PM

    • Alas, I couldn’t find any inscription. Like you, I assume there must be a story behind (or under!) the seashells.

      Steve Schwartzman

      March 14, 2023 at 6:17 PM

  2. It’s comforting and pleasing to imagine that we might eventually rest under a similarly beautiful floral blanket.


    March 14, 2023 at 5:37 PM

    • Robert Frost wrote: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” When it comes to cemeteries (and similarly highway rights of way), people there are who hate wildflowers there and want all growth cropped, mowed, deracinated, obliterated. We’re fortunate in south central Texas that in at least some cemeteries the managers promote wildflowers and only do mowing and trimming after the plants have had their day in the sun and produced seeds.

      Steve Schwartzman

      March 14, 2023 at 6:24 PM

    • Yes, that would suit me too. (But not yet!)

      Ann Mackay

      March 16, 2023 at 6:19 PM

  3. An abandoned cemetery is often a haven for wildflowers.

    Peter Klopp

    March 14, 2023 at 8:18 PM

    • Abandoned, yes. This cemetery is still in use. At least they hadn’t yet mowed down the wildflowers, and I hope they won’t mow until after the plants drop their seeds.

      Steve Schwartzman

      March 14, 2023 at 9:24 PM

  4. Lovely flowers, what a curious grave!


    March 14, 2023 at 11:13 PM

  5. I spent some time looking at the shells, and decided they’re scallop shells. That makes sense on a number of levels. The scallop shell is a symbol of Saint James the Apostle; for centuries, the shell has been the symbol of the Camino de Santiago, and its pilgrims – los peregrinos. Whether the person buried here actually made the pilgrimage is hard to say, and perhaps improbable. But I’d bet that the shells were used to cover the grave in at least a metaphorical reference to our earthly pilgrimage and a tribute to St. James.


    March 15, 2023 at 6:50 AM

    • I just read your addition. I’d be interested in Mordhorst’s rationale for using the shells. This could be an example of both/and rather than either/or when it comes to explanations.


      March 15, 2023 at 6:52 AM

      • I’ve long noticed that many events have more than one cause. That realization should temper many heated arguments, but it doesn’t and won’t.

        Steve Schwartzman

        March 15, 2023 at 8:26 AM

    • I didn’t know about scallop shells symbolizing the Camino de Santiago. While the odds seem against the person buried here having made that pilgrimage, unlikely things happen. If the grave had borne any information about who’s in it, we might have done some research.

      An example of someone who traveled far was James Gray, from Edinbugh, Scotland, who ended up buried in Floresville, as shown in the second photo in a post from 2019.

      Steve Schwartzman

      March 15, 2023 at 8:23 AM

  6. That is really interesting and I have never heard of using shells over a grave.

    automatic gardener

    March 15, 2023 at 8:00 AM

  7. That’s interesting. I’ve never seen or heard of using shells to cover a grave.
    Yes, it would be lovely if all cemeteries were filled with wildflowers.


    March 15, 2023 at 9:18 AM

    • I wish organizations would start a campaign pushing for wildflower-covered cemeteries. As for shells on graves, perhaps someone will start a revival (of the tradition, that is, not of coming back to life).

      Steve Schwartzman

      March 15, 2023 at 9:46 AM

  8. […] Rancho Cemetery in yesterday’s post was the second one we visited on March 13th. The first was the McKeller Cemetery a few miles north […]

  9. I’ve never seen a grave like this in NY or PA. I like Linda’s suggestion of the scallop/pilgrimage connection, I’ve read the shells are all along the St James routes in Europe and I’ve seen medieval pilgrims’ scallop badges in museums. I guess it wouldn’t be cockles and mussels, since they’re alive, alive, oh.

    Robert Parker

    March 15, 2023 at 5:03 PM

  10. Here’s a fascinating and well documented history of Mordhorst’s work throughout the area. It answers one of my questions: where did he get the shells? In fact, they came from Rockport and Galveston. There are photos of others of his graves, with locations. I was interested to see that one is in Comfort, which is a place I pass through and/or visit every time I’m in the area. I’ll have to make it a point to stop at the cemetery and see if I can find that grave.


    March 15, 2023 at 6:23 PM

    • Thanks for the link.
      Let’s hope that cemetery comforts you in your sadness over not having seen one of those seashell graves.

      Steve Schwartzman

      March 15, 2023 at 7:38 PM

  11. I agree with you on wildflowers and cemeteries, Steve. A friend once made the pilgrimage to Kate Wolf’s grave in California. She said it was covered in wildflowers. I can’t think of a better resting place than one covered in flowers.

    I have never seen one of those shell covered graves. It is beautiful. Thanks for the link. I learned something new.

    Lavinia Ross

    March 16, 2023 at 4:53 PM

    • I’m happy to hear Kate Wolf’s grave is covered in wildflowers; that’s so appropriate for someone who sang “Cornflower Blue.” I remember telling you six years ago how I met Kate Wolf at a concert she gave in Austin in the 1980s, and how I even made a 3-D portrait of her that I sent to her family after she died.

      I’m grateful to other people for providing that information about shell-covered graves.

      Steve Schwartzman

      March 16, 2023 at 5:19 PM

  12. In the UK we have ‘green burial’ sites, some in woodland. My parents’ graves are in a ‘green’ area of our local cemetery — no grave markers are allowed and the area is encouraged to be fairly natural, with trees planted and grass allowed to grow long. A good place for birds!

    Ann Mackay

    March 16, 2023 at 6:24 PM

    • That raises a question: if no markers are allowed, how do descendants keep track of where their antecedents are buried?

      Steve Schwartzman

      March 16, 2023 at 6:50 PM

      • I don’t know if you can – although there is, of course, a written record of burials. (Since neither my brother nor myself has any children, it’s not a worry for us.)

        Ann Mackay

        March 16, 2023 at 8:00 PM

        • I guess interested parties will have to rely on those written records. I prefer being able to read inscriptions on tombstones, many of which are interesting.

          Steve Schwartzman

          March 16, 2023 at 10:12 PM

  13. The shell graves look good and have a fascinating history. On our recent family history searches we came upon a few graves (not our family) covered with paua shells but none were done as well as this grave. As for making do with what’s available, beer bottles are often part of grave decorations in Tonga.


    March 16, 2023 at 8:06 PM

    • Beer bottles on graves: now that’s something I’ve never seen. In Central America I came to appreciate how cemeteries there are more colorful and irregular than those I grew up seeing in New York. Likewise later for Mexican-American cemeteries in the southwestern United States.

      Steve Schwartzman

      March 16, 2023 at 10:08 PM

  14. It is so cool that these wildflowers grow in cemeteries … what a lovely place to rest In peace!


    March 21, 2023 at 2:31 PM

    • Amen to that! If you click the “cemetery” tag after this post’s text you can scroll through some other wildflower-covered Texas cemeteries (just skip the one post about a Philippine cemetery).

      Steve Schwartzman

      March 21, 2023 at 3:07 PM

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