When we hear the words tombstone, headstone, or gravestone, they all bring the same image to mind; a stone marked with a name, birth date, death date, and maybe some funerary art and an epitaph. It is a stone representing a person laid to rest.
While working on some blog posts recently, I noticed I used the term tombstone very often. To avoid repetition, I found myself using some other words synonymously like headstone, gravestone, and grave marker. It got me thinking, ARE these words interchangeable, or is there a subtle difference? I decided to look into it a little deeper.
My term of preference seems to be tombstone, so that is where I started in my search. The dictionary defines a tombstone as “a stone marker, usually inscribed, on a tomb or grave”.1 The first known use of the word in print was in 1565.2 According to Merriam-Webster, a tombstone is also defined as a gravestone.2
So tombstone and gravestone can be used interchangeably. After a little more reading I found that a gravestone is a Middle English word dating back to 1175–1225.3 It has a similar definition to tombstone, but I read that the term gravestone comes from the practice of covering whole graves in stones, to mark the grave as well as “keep the occupants in the ground”.4
A headstone, according to dictionary.com is “a stone marker set at the head of a grave.5 This term was first recorded in 1525-35.5 It is interesting to note that this definition specifies the location of the stone, similar to a footstone, which is a smaller stone laid at the foot of a grave. The first known use of the word headstone was in the 15th century.6
Grave markers, also known as cemetery markers, are smaller and sit flat to the ground. They can sometimes be angled like a wedgestone, to make them easier to read. They may be small, but they still carry the same information, such as name, birth, and death date.7
Two other possible terms are monument and cenotaph. These are a little different as they are not as interchangeable. A monument refers specifically to a very large -monumental- stone.7 A cenotaph may seem similar to a tombstone or monument as it sometimes has names and dates engraved on it, but there are no bodies buried beneath it. Cenotaph means “empty tomb”.8 They are often used to memorialize and commemorate those buried elsewhere, such as soldiers who died in war.
All that being said, tombstone, gravestone and headstone can be used interchangeably. Although at one point in time they may have looked different than what we think of today. It’s interesting to look at how language has changed over time and how these words have all become synonymous with each other. After doing so much reading on the subject, I think tombstone is still my favourite term.
Do you have a preference? Or maybe you use a different term? I would love to hear your thoughts!
Thanks for reading!
- Tombstone | Dictionary.com
- Tombstone | Merriam-Webster
- Gravestone | Dictionary.com
- What Is the Origin of the Gravestone? | Classroom
- Headstone | Dictionary.com
- Headstone | Merriam-Webster
- The Difference Between Headstones, Monuments, Markers, and Urns | Headstone hub
- Tombstone gravestone or headstone whats the difference? | Grammar Girl