Is there a Difference Between a Headstone, Gravestone & Tombstone?

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A single headstone on a grave in a cemetery

For those who are unfamiliar with end-of-life planning, some things can seem a little confusing.

This can ring true for the terminology that’s used among funeral directors, cemeteries, and memorial stonemasons, with some words often being used interchangeably.

An example of this can occur when someone is buying a memorial headstone for the first time, as they may begin to wonder whether they should be shopping for a headstone, gravestone, tombstone… or all three rolled into one?

People even wonder the same when simply strolling through a cemetery or church graveyard.

It may seem a child-like question, but it’s a very valid one.

“What is the difference between a headstone and a gravestone? Or the difference between a gravestone and a tombstone?”

In many instances, people use these three terms as interchangeable synonyms, but are there any differences between each one?

Well, let’s take a closer look at the origin of each term and see if we can understand if there are times when one term might be more preferable to use over the others.

Is it a headstone, gravestone or tombstone?

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

In today’s world, people tend to use “headstone”, “gravestone” and “tombstone” as meaning one and the same.

Language has evolved, but in years past, these words weren’t used the same way people typically use them today.

In fact, each of the three terms were used to describe three different things.

So, onto the origins of each term….

Origins of the Word Gravestone

Let’s start with the term “gravestone”.

The word gravestone dates back to the 12th-13th centuries, with popular use of the term taking place between the years 1175 and 1225.

During this time, when someone mentioned a gravestone, they would be referring to a large stone slab that would lay over the top of a grave.

This large gravestone may have been engraved with a name, date, or words.

As it was a large stone slab that would lay horizontally over the top of the grave plot, it didn’t resemble the vertical grave markers that we know today.

Origins of the Word Tombstone

The term “tombstone” is the latest of the three to reach the English language, with its first use being around 1560.

Tombstone has Greek origin, with the Greek word “tymbos” meaning “burial mound”, and the Greek word “stia” meaning “pebble”.

From here, “tymbos” evolved into “tomb” while “stia” evolved into “stone”.

During this period of time, coffins themselves were often made out of stone material and the term tombstone originally described the lid of the stone coffin.

Origins of the Word Headstone

Around 1400, the term “headstone” came into existence.

It was originally used as a synonym for “cornerstone”, which is a ceremonial stone that sits at the corner of a building joining two exterior walls together.

This stone is usually inscribed with the start and end dates for the building’ construction, along with the names of architects and the owner, as well as any other relevant information that relates to the building.

Today, cornerstones are often placed ornamentally on interior walls, floors, or the façade of the building.

They used to be significant both structurally and symbolically, containing not only information about the structure, but also providing a reference point for all other stones that were used in the foundation of the build.

Google Ngram Viewer – Headstone, Gravestone, Tombstone (1500 – 2019)

Below are the results from the Google Ngram Viewer that show trends for use of the words “Headstone”, “Gravestone” and “Tombstone” in published books between the years 1500 to 2019.


Google Ngram Viewer results for the words headstone, gravestone and tombstone between 1500 to 2019

(Click to expand)

Interestingly, these Google Ngram Viewer results show that since the mid 1700’s, “tombstone” has long been the most used term in books (save for a brief period around 1810) – while “headstone” has only overtaken use of the word “gravestone” within the last decade or so after running fairly even to each other throughout the last century.

Association with Grave Markers

Through the centuries, the definition of what a headstone, gravestone and tombstone is has evolved.

By 1711, we know that the term “tombstone” was being used to describe a grave marker, and the same can be said of the term “gravestone”, although we can’t be entirely sure when that shift first took place.

The word headstone soon experienced the same shift in meaning and also became associated with grave markers.

By 1775, the word headstone had evolved into literally meaning “upright stone at the head of a grave”.

This association makes sense given the specific details that cornerstones highlight and the location of grave markers on burial plots.

Old headstones and graves covered in moss in a cemetery

When Should You Use the Terms Headstone, Gravestone, or Tombstone?

So, now you know the way in which each term has evolved over the years so that all three are ultimately used to mean a grave marker in regular conversation, but it’s still easy to forget what the actual differences once were between each term.

Below, we have tried to simplify things and help you remember by using each word in a sentence or two that describes their historical meaning.

These sentences highlight the original meaning of each word while hopefully contextualising their modern-day usages so that it is easier for you to understand.

Using the Word Headstone

The word headstone was used as a synonym for cornerstone. Today, the word headstone is used to describe an upright stone situated at the head of a burial plot.

A headstone contains information engraved, embossed, or etched onto the stone material, such as the name of the deceased person, and birth and death dates. Some headstones also feature other information about the individual, quotes, or images.

Using the Word Tombstone

The word tombstone used to describe the stone lid that was used as part of a stone coffin throughout the mid-16th century.

Through the centuries, the meaning of the word tombstone developed into describing an upright stone that sits at the head of a grave. The stone typically contains the name of the deceased, as well as the day on which they were born and the day they died. Some tombstones also contain an epitaph or likeness of the deceased.

Using the Word Gravestone

The word gravestone was used to describe a large stone that was used to cover the top of a burial plot. The stone was often engraved with information about the deceased person. This may include their name, birth and death dates, and an epitaph.

They also often included decorative gravestone symbols. In this modern day use of memorials, a grave ledger would be the closest thing to what a gravestone used to be. A gravestone is now used synonymously with headstone and tombstone when referring to a grave marker.

Grave markers on burial plots in a leafy cemetery

Words Evolve Through the Years

When the life of a loved one come’s to an end, it is a very sad and grief-filled time, but eventually we learn to celebrate their life and appreciate the precious memories we hold.

Talking about rituals, ceremonies and memorials that accompany death can feel intimidating – especially for someone who is looking to commemorate a lost life for the very first time, or for someone who has never experienced taking control of the planning and decisions that need to be made when it comes to honouring a life in the most fitting way.

It may fall on you to choose a headstone to honour your loved one. Or you may want to discuss memorials with a loved one before they pass to gain a better understanding of their wishes. Either way, it can be easy to find yourself confused with the different terminology.

The Terms “Headstone”, “Gravestone” & “Tombstone” Can Be Used Interchangeably

Each term, “headstone”, “gravestone” and “tombstone” used to have very different meanings that were clearly separate from one another. That is no longer the case now that time has seen all three terms evolve into the same meaning.

When discussing a lawn memorial with a memorial mason, any one of the three would be appropriate when discussing a grave marker. Choosing one ahead of another will not confuse things or violate any secret headstone etiquette – so you can freely choose the grave marker term you are most comfortable with… or even use the words grave marker!

If you’d like to discuss our range of headstones and other memorials, including cremation memorials, full kerb sets, memorial vases, heart shaped memorials and much more, don’t hesitate to contact our memorial experts here at Mossfords Memorial Masons. With three branches across Cardiff and Cwmbran we are perfectly located to help all within South Wales. You can get in touch by calling 0800 093 83 77, by popping an e-mail over to or by filling in our simple online contact form.

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