Finding beauty and inspiration in unusual places

Cemetery Symbolism Part 1 – Hands and Gestures

Our hands are marvels of nature. They provide a myriad of complex functions, not the least of which is facilitating communications. Hands form gestures, and gestures convey messages. Thus, it is only natural that they are prominent in cemetery art and symbolism, often depicted in four positions: blessing, clasping, pointing, and praying.

“Sometimes, reaching out and taking someone’s hand is the beginning of a journey. At other times, it is allowing another to take yours.”
― Vera Nazarian, The Perpetual Calendar of Inspiration

An outstretched hand in front of a blurred background
Ohlsdorf Cemetery, Hamburg, Germany

Touching, Shaping, Expressing – The Work Of Hands

It is no coincidence that the area of the brain controlling the movement of hands is next to the language center. Children begin speaking with their hands at an early age. They point their fingers at objects to steer their parents’ attention, a technique people continue to use throughout their lives.

The nun in the photo below expresses her devotion to God by not only pointing to but actually touching the center of the cross.

Kneeling nun touching a cross.
Ohlsdorf Cemetery, Hamburg, Germany

When we attempt to communicate with others who don’t share a common language, we often use gestures. Eating and drinking can easily be portrayed in pantomime. We might wave our hand as a symbol of water. If we wish to indicate we are heading in a certain direction, we point to ourselves, and make a running motion with our index and middle fingers.

The interesting aspect of using hand gestures is how little we need to think before making them. It is as if they are a form of unspoken language embedded in our minds, recallable with little if any effort.

A universal symbol is the beggar’s outstretched hand. If this hand holds a blank dish, the message is: I’m hungry. Please help me.

A hand holding a beggar's bowl towards the visitor.
Ohlsdorf Cemetery, Hamburg, Germany

There are no defined rules for such gestures. They arise from the creativity and imagination of the narrating person. However, most people understand them without the assistance of the spoken word.

Speaking With Hands And Body – The World Of Gestures

While we can indeed read many gestures without interpretation, others have a deeper meaning not readily understandable. These specific gestures often appear in religious representations or belong to a certain aspect of culture or history. 

The origins of a fixed system of hand gestures dates back to the 5th century BC. The Classical Greeks established this complex system (Chironomia), employed by orators giving speeches to large audiences. Each gesture had a distinct meaning known by the speaker as well as the audience.

The orator's gestures in ancient rome.
The orator’s gestures in ancient Rome. Photo: Pinterest

The rhetorical art of using hand gestures to persuade audiences developed further in ancient Rome. Thus, many believe the earliest Christian artists adopted this system in portraying Jesus, angels, and saints.

Gestures Of Jesus Christ

If you take a closer look at various forms of cemetery art — statues, bas relief murals, and stained glass — you will see figures making specific gestures. While some have a specific religious meaning, others belong to the most widely understood gestures.

The statue below depicts Jesus Christ extending an invitation to the onlooker, one that does not need an explanation. The Bible’s interpretation of this invitation is most commonly expressed in this verse: “Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” Matthew 11:28 KJV

A statue of Jesus Christ with outstretched arms and hands.
Ohlsdorf Cemetery, Hamburg, Germany

Another example of how aspects of Christian faith are visualized via gestures is the statue below. The right hand of Jesus Christ points skywards towards God. His left hand appears to rest on someone’s head. The laying on of hands on the head is an important gesture, a symbolic and formal method of invoking the Holy Spirit. While its meaning varies from blessing over healing to ordination, a person who lay hands on another in the name of the Lord is always representative of God. In a cemetery, this symbol conveys that God had blessed the deceased.

Statue of Jesus Christ with the right hand pointing skyward and the left hand blessing a visitor.
Ohlsdorf Cemetery, Hamburg, Germany

“Angels descending, bring from above, echoes of mercy, whispers of love.”
― Fanny J. Crosby, An Autobiography

Below is another example of a blessing conveyed by the hand of an angel.

Close-up of the blessing hand of an angel.
Ohlsdorf Cemetery, Hamburg, Germany

In this photo, a young woman holds an urn with a flame. Her left hand protects the flame from the wind. Urns with flames originated in the Victorian era (1837–1901) as symbols of undying remembrance and new life. The slight smile on the statue’s face reinforces the strength of her belief.

Statue of a young woman with an eternal light in her right hand.
Ohlsdorf Cemetery, Hamburg, Germany

Finger Pointing Skyward

The ancient world used the gesture of the finger pointing towards the sky to represent a mistake but also to suggest that one should be attentive. It further designated the beginning of a narrative or explanation. We still use this gesture in group settings as an indication that we have something to say and we wish to be heard.

Close-up of a finger pointing skyward.
Ohlsdorf Cemetery, Hamburg, Germany 

In cemetery art this gesture took on a variety of meanings. While it suggests that the onlooker should pay attention, it is also symbolic of everlasting life and the Last Judgement. Christians are called to play their part in building God’s kingdom here on earth. This gesture symbolizes the reward of the righteous and confirmation of life after death.

“Make life a wonder to behold.”
― Steven Redhead, Life Is A Cocktail

Close-up of a statue of Jesus Christ, his right forefinger pointing skyward.
Ohlsdorf Cemetery, Hamburg, Germany

Familiar Gestures In Cemetery Art

Joined hands have a strong symbolic effect: they symbolize the eternal unity of lovers. The hand on top often indicates which person passed away first. He or she is now guiding their loved one into the next life.

“your hand
touching mine.
this is how
― Sanober Khan, A touch, a tear, a tempest

Joined bronze hands, symbolizing eternal love.
Ohlsdorf Cemetery, Hamburg, Germany

The depiction of a handshake on a gravestone dates back to the Victorian era (1837–1901). It represents a farewell to the earthly existence and God welcoming us into heaven. 

Depiction of a handshake as a symbol of a farewell to earthly existence.
Ohlsdorf Cemetery, Hamburg, Germany

Clasped hands holding a rose symbolize love in its earthly and heavenly aspects. Here the rose represents the one we have lost and our deep longing.

Clasped hands holding a rose
Ohlsdorf Cemetery, Hamburg, Germany

A hand at a door handle illustrates the passage into the afterlife, or the entrance to heaven.

Hand on a door handle.
Ohlsdorf Cemetery, Hamburg, Germany

The hand on the heart is a common gesture of honesty and sincerity. It is even a formula in German speech: Hand aufs Herz! (Put your hand on your heart!).

“And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”
― Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince

Cemetery statue with a hand on her heart.
Ohlsdorf Cemetery, Hamburg, Germany

“If you gave someone your heart and they died, did they take it with them? Did you spend the rest of forever with a hole inside you that couldn’t be filled?”
― Jodi Picoult, Nineteen Minutes

Detail of a cemetery statue with a hand on her heart.
Ohlsdorf Cemetery, Hamburg, Germany

Gestures Of Mourning And Triumph

A wreath symbolizes the indestructible crown of triumphant Christians. It implies victory over death.

“Though lovers be lost, love shall not; And death shall have no dominion.”
― Dylan Thomas, The Poems of Dylan Thomas

Hand holding a wreath towards heaven.
Ohlsdorf Cemetery, Hamburg, Germany

Despair, mourning, and grief are expressed with the same gestures by people throughout the world. Every onlooker immediately understands them without further explanation.

Statue of a grieving woman covering her face with one hand.
Ohlsdorf Cemetery, Hamburg, Germany

“The wounds that never heal can only be mourned alone.”
― James Frey, A Million Little Pieces

Statue of a mourning woman with her hand on her throat.
Ohlsdorf Cemetery, Hamburg, Germany

This post is but a glimpse into the fascinating world of gestures. If you would like to learn more about this topic, I recommend the book, Gestures and Acclamations in Ancient Rome (Ancient Society and History), by Gregory S. Aldrete, Professor Emeritus of history and humanistic studies at the University of Wisconsin–Green Bay.

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