Hand Symbolism on Gravestones
Hand symbolism on gravestones can reveal how our ancestors lived and what they believed.
One of the most common gravestone symbols on tombstones is the hand. There are clasped hands, pointing fingers, hands holding objects, and more.
Finger Pointing Up
Fingers pointing upward indicate that the departed has gone to heaven and beckons grieving loved ones to look up.
This finger is pointing to the stars, which represent heaven.
Simple sleeve cuffs evolved into elaborately carved cuffs.
Finger Pointing Down
A hand with a finger pointing down represents the hand of God. The swirls at the top are symbolic of clouds or heaven.
The chain represents the family. Notice that it has a broken link. That separate link is symbolic of the deceased.
God is reaching out with one finger to bring them to heaven to join their departed family members.
Handshakes on gravestones from the early 1800s showed just the hands themselves – no sleeves – so they appeared almost like severed limbs. Later gravestone styles added cuffs to the wrists.
The origin of the handshake dates back to at least the 9th century BC in Assyria. It signified a token of peace, as the hand was extended without weapons. The shaking up and down may even have been a means of verifying that there was not a dagger or knife up the other person’s sleeve.
In ancient Rome, handshakes were a symbol of loyalty and friendship. Clasped hands were even stamped on Roman coins.
Handshakes also denote that a person’s word is their bond, a giving of a sacred trust.
In the case of gravestone symbolism, handshakes can mean a final farewell or an eternal bond between the living and the dead.
Clasped hands were sometimes meant to portray the link between a married couple.
Notice the details on this hand symbolism. The fingernails are well-defined, as is the clothing.
Cuffs with lace, buttons, and trim show the departed came from a family that was well-to-do.
Sometimes one hand in a handshake is very stiff, showing that the person is dead, while the other hand has bent joints, indicating that the person is alive. The hand on the left is usually the one belonging to the deceased.
This is a symbol of farewell between the living and the dead. It is often accompanied by the words “Gone but not forgotten”, “Rest in Peace”, or “Good-bye”.
If you see one stiff hand in a handshake on a family gravestone – and there are male/female cuffs – it can be a clue as to which spouse died first.
Finger in a Book
The finger pointing upward is sometimes combined with an open book, representing a Bible.
This symbol suggests that the Word of God is the pathway to heaven.
Finger and Flowers
Again, the finger pointing up means the soul has gone to heaven. Open flowers symbolize that the deceased was in the full bloom of life.
This gravestone features a broken stem with a drooping blossom in the hand. This means that the person’s life was cut short.
Looking at the age of death at the bottom, we can see that this young lady died at the age of 17 years, 5 months, and 10 days (17Y, 5M, 10D).
The finger on this hand is pointing slightly upward toward a wilting flower and a bird. The drooping flower and bud show that this woman’s life was cut short and her body has died. But the bird is a symbol of her soul, which has taken flight to heaven.
Double Hand Pillar
This pillar grave marker in Hamilton, Indiana has a hand pointing upward for both the husband and the wife.
Both the height of the pillar and the pointing fingers remind cemetery visitors to look upward to heaven.
Hand from Heaven’s Veil
A handshake beneath a veil symbolizes someone in heaven reaching out to the deceased to bring them into God’s presence.
On this little girl’s gravestone, the hand of God reaches from behind heaven’s veil to lift a banner with her name on it up to Himself.
The Final Act
Looking at this gravestone, one might think of the final act of a play. Or taking it even more literally, the hand on the stage could be a “stagehand”. But alas, this is not what our ancestors were thinking of!
The hand is a symbol of action or a person’s deeds. It shows that the deceased is ready to leave the stage of life and move beyond the veil into the afterlife.
It is a reminder that there is more to life after one dies. This life is just one act in a much longer play.
One person leaves the stage and the curtain goes down. But the play must go on! It must go on for those on both sides of the veil.
Hands of Priesthood Blessings
Hands that are held in this position are a symbol on Jewish gravestones for those who have inherited a priestly heritage.
The majority of those who have this priestly heritage have had the last name of Cohen – a name that literally means “priest” in Hebrew. They are those who have descended from Aaron, the brother of the ancient prophet Moses.
Aaron’s priesthood rights have been passed down from generation to generation. Those who inherit this right or power use it to perform priestly duties.
One of their priestly duties is to hold their hands as pictured on these gravestones when offering an Aaronic benediction or blessing over the Jewish people.
To learn more about Jewish gravestone symbols, click HERE.
Holding Back the Hands of Time
This gravestone from Zydowski Cemetery in Warsaw, Poland is symbolic of “turning back the hands of time”, “turning back the clock”, and “turning to the past”. The mask and harp represent the deceased’s accomplishments in theater and music.
Hands Holding an Anchor
This hand is holding an anchor. Sometimes an anchor was carved on the gravestones of seamen since it was their last resort in a storm. But more often, an anchor on a gravestone was a symbol of hope.
The Bible references an anchor in connection with hope in Hebrews 6: 18-19, saying, “. . . lay hold upon the hope set before us: which hope we have as an anchor of the soul, both sure and steadfast . . .”
Those without hope may be like a ship tossed on the sea with their emotions being carried in every direction. The anchor would remind family members visiting the grave to hold on to the hope of seeing their loved one again.
To members of Freemasonry, the anchor represented well-grounded hope, a life well-spent, and eternal tranquility.
Handshake Beneath a Crown
The crown typically symbolizes Christ, who is also known as “The King of Kings”.
A handshake beneath a crown indicates the deceased is being welcomed to heaven through the power of Christ’s resurrection.
Hand Holding a Cross
A hand holding tight to a cross is also a symbol of one who follows Jesus Christ. It indicates hope for resurrection.
Hand and Heart
The heart on a hand symbol implies a loving welcome to heaven to one who has lived a life of love and service.
A heart on a hand is also a symbol of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, a fraternal organization derived from English Oddfellows orders of the mid-18th century.
The Independent Order of the Odd Fellows is sometimes referred to as The Triple Link Fraternity. This is a reference to the Odd Fellow symbol of a chain with three links with the letters “F”, “L”, and “T” in them.
The letters in the three links represent the fraternity’s guiding principles of Friendship, Love, and Truth.
Hand symbolism was much more common in the 1800s than it is now. Praying hands are the most common hand symbol on gravestones today.
In 19th-century Dutch society, it was taboo for those of differing faiths to be buried together. So a wall was built in Netherland’s Roermond graveyard to divide those who were Protestant from those who were Catholic.
In defiance of this cultural custom, Colonel J.W.C. van Gorkum, a Protestant man who served with the Dutch Cavalry, and his noblewoman Catholic wife, Lady Josephina Carlina Petronela Hubertina van Aefferden, were buried in their assigned cemetery sections but the hands on their gravestones reach across the barrier.
The couple had been married for forty years and will now hold hands throughout eternity.
More Gravestone Symbols
To learn about other gravestone symbols click on these links:
- Understanding Cemetery Symbols Part I
- Understanding Cemetery Symbols Part II
- Understanding Cemetery Crosses
- Irish Gravestone Symbols
- Winged Skull Gravestone Symbols
- Egyptian Gravestone Symbols
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