What do Hands mean in Cemeteries?

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NICOLA CARPENTER describes the different meanings behind hands on cemetery monuments

Clasping Hands at Highgate Cemetery

Cemeteries are so much more than silent angels and Gothic architecture.  Hidden among the stones and carved columns are coded messages left for the living. 

If you have visited or walked through an old cemetery or churchyard during a point in your life, the likelihood is that you may have happened across some strange and intriguing symbols etched into the cold stone.  Perhaps the most common yet mystifying symbol of all is that of the humble hand.

From the early 1800s up until the mid 1900s hands were seen as an important symbol of life and carved into the face of gravestones they give clues as to the departed’s relationships with those left behind and with God. 

Cemetery hands can usually be found in four main depictions; pointing clasping, praying and blessing.

The meaning of cemetery hands

A hand with the index finger extended upwards symbolises the hope of heaven and the rewards contained within, while a hand pointing downwards does not show the way to that ’other place’, but represents the hand of God reaching down for the deceased’s soul and invites the viewer to consider the fate of the person beneath the stone.

Clasping hands or a handshake is the final farewell to earthly existence and the welcome unto the Kingdom of Heaven.  Pay close attention to the sleeves, ruffled or laced cuffs are that of a woman clasping the hand of her husband and representing their marriage together and the hope of being reunited in the here after.

Hands folded together in prayer show the deceased praying for eternal life and admittance to Heaven.

Two hands placed together with the ring and middle finger separated, are the symbol of the Jewish blessing that signifies a Kohen, the Hebrew word for priest who is traditionally believed to be directly descended from the biblical Aaron.

If you look long and hard enough you will find other hands gracing the gravestones of those passed before us. 

A hand holing a chain with a broken link shows a significant death in the family, breaking the family chain.  A link being gently plucked from a chain is God’s hand bringing the soul of the dead unto him. 

A hand that holds an axe is showing a life cut short and a hand holding a upturned torch, the flame of life extinguished to burn no more. 

A hand that holds a book or the holy bible represents resurrection through holy scripture where a hand holding a quill or pen represents the name of the departed being recorded in The Book of Life.

There is something so invitingly human about hands carved into gravestones and I myself cannot help but stop and ponder the life of those in the earth beneath my feet,

For more creepy topics from Berkshire’s NICOLA CARPENTER, you can read her blog here.



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