What Is the Difference Between Headstone, Tombstone and Gravestone?

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Alecia Milano
Posted by Alecia Milano on November 1, 2022

Have you ever wondered what the correct term for a grave marker is? You’re not alone. 

When planning a memorial, the terminology can become confusing—especially when some words like headstone, tombstone and gravestone seem interchangeable. 

When you dive into the origin of each term, however, you’ll learn of the subtle differences that give each their own unique meaning. 

Continue reading to learn where the terms headstone, tombstone and gravestone came from and how we use them in the stoneworking industry today.

What Is a Headstone?

The term headstone is used to describe an upright stone at the head of a grave. “Headstone” is the term we most commonly use at Milano Monuments.MM_HeadstoneTombstoneGravestone (3) (1)Prior to its origination in 1400, headstone was once a synonym for the term cornerstone. A cornerstone is a ceremonial stone that sits in the corner of a building, oftentimes joining two exterior walls together. Cornerstones were significant for a few reasons: They contained information about the structure being built and provided a reference point for every other stone used in the foundation of the building.

Over time, the definition of headstone evolved and eventually became more synonymous with grave marker than cornerstone. In its later usage, headstones were engraved with important information of someone who passed, like their name, birth and death dates, and on occasion a memorial quote or picture.

What Is a Tombstone?

Today, a tombstone shares the same definition as a headstone. It’s an upright stone that sits at the head of a grave—oftentimes containing personalized engraved or etched elements. 

Greek in origin, the term tombstone was adapted by the English language in the mid-1500s and was used to describe the lid of a stone coffin. In Greek, the word “tymbos” means “burial mound” while the word “stia” means “pebble.” From there, “tymbos” evolved into “tomb” and “stia” became “stone.”

MM_HeadstoneTombstoneGravestone (5) (1)

Tombstone is not a common term we use at Milano Monuments, but since the evolution of its definition, it’s not incorrect to refer to a headstone as a tombstone as well.

What Is a Gravestone?

Gravestones were once used to describe a large stone slab that covered the entire grave. Similar to the origin of headstone and tombstones, gravestones were sometimes engraved with information about an individual.

image2 (3)

Middle English in origin, the word gravestone dates back to 1175 - 1225. When most think of a gravestone, they think of a vertical, standing grave marker. However, today a gravestone more closely resembles a grave ledger—a large stone slab featuring lengthier information like a loved one’s genealogy or a list of their accomplishments. 

At Milano Monuments, we use the term gravestone interchangeably with the term headstone, but not as frequently.

Explore More Memorial Terminology

The terms headstone, gravestone and tombstone once meant very different things. However, over time they have evolved to share similar meanings. If you’re interested in learning more about unique memorial terminology and other related memorialization topics, subscribe to our blog and receive resources directly in your inbox.

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Topics: Memorialization

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