What’s the Difference Between a Headstone, Gravestone and Tombstone

Dec 22, 2023 | History

When wandering through the solemn paths of a cemetery, one is often surrounded by an array of stone markers, each standing as a silent testament to a life once lived. While these markers may appear similar at first glance, they are known by different names—headstones, gravestones, and tombstones—and they carry distinct historical and cultural significances. In this article, we delve into the nuances that distinguish these terms, exploring their origins, the evolution of their use, and the specific contexts in which each term is most accurately applied. Understanding the difference between a headstone, gravestone, and tombstone not only enriches our grasp of funerary customs but also deepens our appreciation for the commemorative practices that honour the memories of those who have passed.

Key Takeaways

  • The words gravestone, tombstone, and headstone are now used interchangeably, but they originated at different times and have slight distinctions in their meanings.
  • Headstones are typically upright stones strategically placed at the head of a grave, bearing inscriptions that encapsulate a life’s essence.
  • Gravestones are larger than headstones and mark the full expanse of a grave, often featuring detailed inscriptions or images.
  • Tombstones are traditionally larger slabs of stone that mark and often cover the entire grave, symbolising respect and connecting us with our ancestors.

What are the Differences Between a Headstone, Gravestone, and Tombstone

You may have heard the terms headstone, gravestone, and tombstone used almost interchangeably, but there are subtle differences in history that set them apart when each of the words was used more commonly.

What is a Headstone?

Sandstone Memorial Headstone

Understanding the nuances between a headstone, gravestone, and tombstone is essential when commemorating your loved one’s final resting place. A headstone is more than just a marker; it’s a personal tribute that reflects the unique life and legacy of the person it honours. Here’s what sets a headstone apart:

  1. Design: Typically an upright stone, a headstone stands as a sentinel at the head of a grave.
  2. Placement: It’s strategically placed at the head to symbolise guidance or watchfulness.

What is a Gravestone?

Gravestone in a churchyard

A gravestone, often larger than its counterpart, the headstone, normally marks the full expanse of a grave and may feature detailed inscriptions or images commemorating the life of the departed. You’ll find that a gravestone isn’t just a grave marker; it’s a testament to a life lived, a story engraved in stone for posterity.

The term ‘gravestone’ used to describe these monuments reflects their historical role in marking the entire resting place, not just the stone at the head.

It stands as a physical and enduring link to your loved one, preserving their legacy for the future.

What is a Tombstone?

Tombstone outside a church

Originally, the term “tombstone” referred to the stone cover of a stone coffin, a usage dating back to the mid-16th century.

Over time, the definition of “tombstone” evolved to mean the vertical stone placed at the head of a grave. This marker usually bears the name of the person buried there, along with their birth and death dates. Additionally, some tombstones include an epitaph or a portrait of the deceased.

The Origins of the Word Headstone

Frequently, when you’re exploring the distinctions among these memorial markers, you’ll find that the term ‘headstone’ originated around 1400, distinguishing itself with its specific positioning at the head of a grave.

Originally, the term was a synonym for “cornerstone,” which refers to a ceremonial stone positioned at the corner of a building, uniting two outer walls. Headstones usually bore the date the building was completed.

  1. Origins: The word headstone specifically refers to the marker at the head of the grave, a term that has been part of our language since the late 17th century.
  2. Personalisation: Unlike the broader terms gravestone or tombstone, a headstone often feels more intimate and personal.

Nowadays, headstone is the word most commonly used to describe a memorial at a loved one’s grave.

The Origins of the Word Gravestone

Gravestone’s etymology traces back to the 1300s, becoming widely used between 1175 and 1225, making it the term you’re encountering that’s steeped in the most history when distinguishing it from a headstone or tombstone.

At that time, a gravestone referred to a substantial stone slab placed on top of a grave. A gravestone might feature an inscription with a name, date, or epitaph. Unlike the upright headstones common today, these gravestones were hefty slabs that rested horizontally over a burial plot.

The Origins of the Word Tombstone

You’ll find that the term ‘tombstone’ has its roots in the mid-1500s, marking it as the earliest of these memorial markers to be named. When you trace the lineage of these words, ‘tombstone’ emerges as a kindred term that connects us to the past.

It’s a word that’s been used to signify the stone that marks an empty tomb or grave. Over time, the term evolved, and its use expanded to encompass the stone markers we’re familiar with today.

The term “tombstone” originates from Greek, with the word “tymbos” meaning “burial mound” and “stia” signifying “pebble.”

Over time, “tymbos” transformed into the word “tomb,” and “stia” developed into “stone.”

When the Terms Headstone, Gravestone, or Tombstone be used

You might be wondering when you should use the terms headstone, gravestone, or tombstone.

If you’re marking the head of a grave with a smaller inscription, you’re looking for a headstone.

Conversely, if you’re choosing a larger marker that lies flat over the grave, you’re dealing with a gravestone or tombstone.

When to use Headstone

In choosing a memorial for a loved one, you may wonder whether to select a headstone, gravestone, or tombstone, as these terms are often used interchangeably. Here’s when to specifically use the term ‘headstone’:

  1. Upright Headstone: When you’re looking for a traditional, vertical monument that stands at the head of the grave.
  2. Personalisation: If you want to inscribe a heartfelt message along with the birth and death dates.
  3. Head of the Grave: To indicate that the stone placed is at the head, rather than any other position.

Choose with love and respect, knowing that any term you use honours their memory.

When to use Tombstone

Considering the interchangeable use of headstone, gravestone, and tombstone, you might opt for ‘tombstone’ when emphasising a historical or traditional aspect of the memorial. The term ‘tombstone’ evokes a sense of old-world charm and can connect you to the heritage of memorial traditions.

For centuries, the term “tombstone” has evolved to refer to a vertical stone placed at the head of a grave. This stone usually bears the name of the person who has passed away, along with their birth date and date of death. Additionally, some tombstones may feature a short message known as an epitaph, or an image representing the deceased.

When to use Gravestone

While ‘tombstone’ might speak to historical preferences, you’ll find ‘gravestone’ a fitting term when emphasizing the stone’s role as a marker for the entire grave site. The stone typically bore inscriptions with details of the departed, such as their name, dates of birth and death, along with an epitaph.

Frequently, these stones also showcased ornamental symbols. In contemporary memorial practices, a grave ledger serves a similar purpose to what a gravestone once did.

Frequently asked questions

What is the purpose of a headstone?

In understanding the purpose of a headstone, you’ll recognise it as a marker that stands at the grave’s head, bearing inscriptions that honour and memorialise your loved one.

The headstone serves several key functions:

  1. Memorialisation: It acts as a lasting tribute to the individual, ensuring their memory is preserved for future generations.
  2. Identification: Provides important information such as the full name, birth and death dates, and sometimes their relation to family members.
  3. Expression: Offers a space for a personal epitaph or message that reflects the personality or beliefs of the departed.
  4. Community: Serves as a point of connection, where family and friends can come together to remember and find solace in shared memories.

Why is it called a headstone?

Regarding the term ‘headstone,’ it’s called this because it’s positioned at the head of a grave, symbolising the resting place of the deceased. When you’re honouring a loved one, choosing a headstone offers a sense of connection, knowing it marks where they lay in peace.

The names headstone, gravestone, and tombstone often refer to grave markers, but you’ve learned that a headstone is specifically for the grave’s head. This tradition helps weave the individual’s memory into the fabric of the community.

Although ‘headstone’ and ‘gravestone’ are used interchangeably to refer to these memorials, it’s important to you that the term you choose resonates with the tribute you’re creating—a personal testament to a life cherished and remembered.

Is It a Headstone or Tombstone or Gravestone?

You’re looking to honour a loved one, and whether you call it a headstone, gravestone, or tombstone, it’s a deeply personal choice reflecting your connection to them. They all mark a final resting place.

Why Are Tombstones Called Headstones?

You’re probably wondering why tombstones are often called headstones. It’s because they’re traditionally placed at the head of the grave, marking the resting place with names and dates as a personal tribute.

What Is the Difference Between a Tombstone and a Monument?

You’re looking at tombstones as markers for individual graves, while monuments often signify larger memorials, sometimes for multiple family members or elaborate structures like mausoleums. Both celebrate lives and carry deep personal significance.

What Are Tombstones Called Now?

You’re likely seeking a term for modern tombstones—they’re commonly called gravestones or headstones now, and they symbolise your enduring connection to loved ones who’ve passed on.


You’ve now uncovered the subtle distinctions between headstones, gravestones, and tombstones. Whether you’re memorialising a loved one or satisfying curiosity, you’ll recognise that headstones stand at the head, gravestones mark the grave, and tombstones once-covered tombs.

Each carries the weight of memory and history, a testament to lives lived. So next time you’re in a cemetery, you’ll see more than stone; you’ll understand the stories and significance each marker holds.

At Haven Memorials we create the perfect headstone to remember your loved one from our shops across the South of England and London. Download our brochure and get in touch with us today.

Get in Touch


Haven Memorials     

Grove Farm
The Street
Crookham Village
GU51 5RX