Humans have always loved symbolic imagery and metaphors, whether in poems or in cryptic ciphers. Carving seemingly simple symbols into headstones is a creative way to describe our entire lives or accomplishments through this single icon or image. Whether the carving is an obvious reference, a meaningful motif, or a cryptic marking, learning some of the different meanings of common gravestone symbols can give you ideas for designing either your own or your loved one’s final resting place.
Hands are our ultimate tools: we use them to work, soothe, and communicate. In addition to their practical function, hands are significant symbols in religion, which often applies to gravestone engravings. The symbol isn’t just about the hands themselves but the position they’re in and the action they’re doing. Some examples of hands as symbols include:
Hands clasped in prayer indicate the deceased was faithful and pious. Their religion may have played a large role in their life.
Two Hands Clasping
If two hands clasp each other in a begging or pleading manner, it’s to symbolize guidance to the afterlife or to heaven. However, the symbol may have a romantic meaning if two different hands are clasping each other, especially on a shared monument.
Hand Pointing Down
You may initially believe that a hand pointing down indicates a bad-spirited individual, but it often means the deceased passed away suddenly or unfairly.
Memento Mori Symbols
Gravestones themselves are common symbols that represent the fleeting nature of life. Some people have reminders on their gravestones for passersby to memento mori, or “remember death.” These symbols are more common on older graves, but they send an important message to anyone who views the monument. Memento mori are some of the reasons that headstones are so significant, as the constant reminder of death keeps people humble during the hustle and bustle of life.
Common memento mori symbols include:
- A skeleton or cadaver
- A pierced or downturned heart
- A coffin
- An hourglass
- A scythe
These symbols may accompany a separate symbol that isn’t normally a memento mori, such as a clock, lily, or raven.
Another recurring metaphor that comprises the different meanings of common gravestone symbols is the strength of the oak tree. An oak tree is strong, and it lives a long time and withstands many of the trials the world throws its way. You can easily recognize an oak leaf when you see one, making it a significant icon on headstones.
Someone who has an oak leaf or tree on their grave may have been a leader or the head of the family in life. They stood proud and pushed headstrong through challenges, no matter how fierce. Similarly, an acorn—the seed of an oak tree—may represent growth or someone who found their own way, never forgetting who they were. It may also represent the same values as the entire tree in a more recognizable image.
What do hands on a gravestone mean?
Hands are our ultimate tools: we use them to work, soothe, and communicate. In addition to their practical function, hands are significant symbols in religion, which often applies to gravestone engravings. The symbol isn’t just about the hands themselves but the position they’re in and the action they’re doing.