Headstone Symbols: Handshake or Clasped Hands

The meaning of the symbols commonly found on cemetery gravestones and markers

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Clasping hands represent a common symbol found on cemetery tombstones and gravemarkers. Photo © Chris Raymond

Depending on your perspective, a cemetery, church graveyard or memorial park can prove a location to avoid as long as humanly possible or a place of fascination and even enjoyment. For many in the latter camp, visiting the silent stone sentinels and mute metal markers found in a cemetery offers an opportunity to pay homage to the dead, trace their family history, capture interesting photographs, or find moments of solitude and contemplation.

If you've visited a cemetery for any reason at some point, you might have wondered about a design you saw carved on an old tombstone and what it means. This article examines the meaning behind the headstone symbols commonly found in cemeteries, church graveyards, and memorial parks and, specifically, what two hands clasping, i.e., a handshake, represents.

The Symbol

Countless tombstones and gravemarkers found in cemeteries feature carvings of the human hand, but this particular symbol shows two hands clasped together as if in a handshake. The fingers of one or both hands might appear straight or curled around the opposing hand, and the hands might appear identical or different. Typically, a cuff is visible above each hand, and it's important to notice whether these cuffs appear the same or different (explained below). Also, both hands can appear to reach out from the same level, or one might appear slightly higher than the other (explained below).

The Meaning

Historically, the human hand ranks with the eyes/face as one of the most important and expressive elements of the human form. Generally, hands and/or fingers are associated with creativity, power, war, etc., and many death-related superstitions naturally involve the hand(s). When seen on a cemetery headstone or gravemarker, two clasped hands on the same level with matching cuffs typically represent:

  • A farewell/goodbye to earthly life
  • The continuity/unity of life and death as a human condition
  • A greeting/welcome to eternal life
  • Guidance of the deceased to heaven by loved ones who predeceased him or her

While not necessarily precluding any of the above interpretations, if one hand or one cuff appears more feminine that the other, two clasped hands on the same level with different cuffs and/or a difference in the two hands typically represent:

  • The close emotional or spiritual bond between individuals or partners, such as a husband and wife, a mother and child, etc., despite their separation by death
  • The continuity of love and affection, i.e., eternal devotion, between individuals/partners even though one of them has died
  • A greeting/welcome by an already deceased individual or partner to the newly deceased
  • Guidance of the newly deceased by a deceased individual or partner to everlasting life

Again, without necessarily precluding any of the above interpretations, two clasped hands on slightly different levels typically represent:

  • A greeting/welcome to eternal life, i.e., the hand of God welcoming or guiding the deceased to heaven
  • A greeting/welcome by an already deceased individual or partner to the other
  • Guidance by one deceased individual or partner of the newly deceased to everlasting life

As with anything artistic, it is important to remember that the meaning of most tombstone symbols rests in the eye of the beholder. Thus, the meaning or interpretation of any particular cemetery symbol, or why it appears upon any particular grave marker, generally cannot be definitively determined.

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