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From lawbrain.com

[French, Dead hand.] A term to denote the conveyance of ownership of land or tenements to any corporation, religious or secular.

Traditionally, such transfers were made to religious corporations. Like any corporation, the religious society had unlimited, perpetual duration under the law. It could, therefore, hold land permanently unlike a natural person, whose property is redistributed upon his or her death. The holdings of religious corporations grew as contributions were received from their members. Because such holdings were immune from responsibilities for taxes and payment of feudal dues, greater burdens were placed on noncorporate secular property. Therefore, land in mort-main was said to be held in perpetuity in one dead hand, that of the corporation.