headstones vs tombstone vs gravestone

Headstone vs. Tombstone vs. Gravestone

In following up on last month’s blog article about cemetery etiquette, we were asked the question, “What’s the correct term for a grave marker?” So today, we’re going to take a look at the differences – headstone vs. tombstone vs. gravestone.

When a cemetery inters a deceased loved one, a marker is often placed at the head of the grave to identify them. This marker usually states the name of the person who died and the dates of birth and death. It may include other personal information, images, or a quote, called an epitaph. 

What’s the correct name for that marker, though?

Let’s examine each name through history…


Headstones are a prominent feature in any cemetery. While many cemeteries may also have columbariums, mausoleums, and monuments, the most common sight is rows of headstones.

Due to their expensive nature, some headstones feature the names and details of more than one person, usually family members. 

Carvers commonly construct headstones of slate, limestone, granite, marble, bronze, and sandstone. Wood was once used but proved unlikely to last more than 100 years. The softer the stone, the easier it is to carve. However, those softer stones tend to decay more quickly than harder materials such as marble or granite.

Most U.S. cemeteries plot out graves with the headstones facing east, following Judeo-Christian tradition. 

Tombstone & Gravestone

Gravestones, or grave markers as people more commonly knew them, are believed to date as far back as 3,000 B.C. This period would have them original to the Roman and Celtic cultures.

However, these grave markers were unlike today’s gravestones. The markers were megaliths, used to mark a burial chamber rather than a single grave.

Before cemeteries existed, people had burial plots near their homes where the family would be together. As such, there was no need for individual gravestones. 

We do not know the exact date humans erected the first gravestone. However, scientists discovered the first evidence of floral tributes on graves at a 13,700-year-old prehistoric Israel burial site. 

The word “gravestone” is Middle English in origin, founded between the years 1175 and 1225. Back then, people used the term specifically to refer to a stone slab laid over a grave.

These gravemarkers might have had words, dates, or the name of the deceased engraved. But it didn’t resemble the straight-up-and-down gravemarker most think of today. It was, essentially, a large stone slab laid horizontally to cover most of the burial plot. 

The term “tombstone” first came to the English language from Greek around the year 1560.  

  • “Tymbos” means “burial mound.” 
  • The word “stia” means “pebble.” 
  • From these Greek roots, “tymbos” evolved into “tomb,” and “stia” became “stone.” 

In this era, many coffins were stone. “Tombstone” was initially coined to describe the lid of a stone coffin. 

Headstone vs. Tombstone vs. Gravestone

Which is right in today’s culture? Headstone vs. tombstone vs. gravestone?

So, to sum up, historically, a “tombstone” was the stone placed on top of a stone coffin. A “gravestone” was a stone slab covering a grave. “Headstones” were generally markers denoting a grave. 

Today, though, all of these terms indicate a marker placed at the head of a grave.

At Monument Solutions, we pride ourselves on helping communities, families, churches, and cemeteries preserve their headstones’ structural integrity and beauty. Contact Monument Solutions for preservation assistance today