Headstone Symbols: IHS or IHC

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

IHS on Cross
"IHS" is a common symbol found on cemetery tombstones, gravemarkers and monuments. Photo © Chris Raymond

Depending upon 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 and genealogy, 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 the letters "IHS" or "IHC" represent.

The Symbol
While "IHS" or "IHC" can appear alone on a tombstone, gravemarker or monument, you will usually find these three letters inscribed on a Christian cross, or near a crucifix, a depiction of Jesus suffering crucifixion. (It is not unusual to see these letters accompanying these same religious symbols in a church or other place of worship, by the way.)

This trio of letters can appear in upper- or lowercase, and might look stylized (as in the photograph above) or as "basic" text, like you are reading right now on this page.

Occasionally, you might discover a headstone or monument depicting what looks like a dollar sign ($) with two extra vertical lines or bars on each side.

This, too, represents "IHS" and results from placing these three letters on top of each other.

The Meaning
There are numerous interpretations of "IHS" and "IHC" on the Internet and in books. Some sources suggest "IHS" is an abbreviation for "In His Service" or "In His Steps," both referring to Jesus and his ministry, or the Latin phrase Iesus Hominum Salvator, which means "Jesus, Savior of Men." (Keep reading to understand why Jesus is spelled with an "I" here instead of a "J".)

In addition, "IHS" is often interpreted as a shortened abbreviation of the Latin phrase In Hoc Signo Vinces, meaning, "In this sign, you shall conquer." On the eve of battle, Constantine I reportedly experienced a vision in which he heard these words and saw the Christian cross in the sky or emblazoned across the Sun. As emperor of Rome, he later ended persecution of the Christians by legalizing the religion and also converted to Christianity, the first Roman ruler to do so.

While none of these interpretations is necessarily incorrect, the explanation behind these letters is probably far more mundane: Using the Greek alphabet, Jesus' name is spelled "IHSOYS" (the letters/symbols for iota, eta, sigma, omikron, upsilon and sigma, respectively); using the Roman version, it's spelled "IHSUS." Thus, "IHS" and "IHC" are merely the first three letters of Jesus' name. (The symbol for sigma (Σ) was often simplified to a "C" when writing by hand.)

As mentioned earlier, it's not uncommon to find a symbol resembling a dollar sign ($) with two extra vertical lines or bars on the sides. This, too, stands for "IHS" but results from stacking the three letters on top of each other. This form does not represent the "Almighty Dollar," as cynics might suggest.

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