Headstone, Gravestone or Tombstone: What's The Difference?

Headstone, Gravestone or Tombstone: What’s The Difference?

January 31, 2022

Do you know the difference between a headstone, gravestone or tombstone? These terms are used interchangeably to refer to grave markers, but there used to be distinct differences between them. Here’s an overview of what these terms mean. Rest assured that when you’re purchasing headstones for graves today, your memorial stone manufacturer will walk you through your options.

Tombstones and gravestones

Traditionally, tombstones and gravestones refer to large stone slabs that were placed on the top of tombs or graves, which secured the grave from grave robbers and other intruders (natural or otherwise). The word “gravestone” dates back to the 1300s, while “tombstone” originated in the 1500s.


The headstone is the monument placed at the head of the grave, which usually bears the deceased’s name, birth and death dates and other important information. This is the most modern term, first appearing in 1676.

Monuments and cenotaphs

While “tombstone,” “gravestone” and “headstone” are all used interchangeably today, there is one interesting distinction between these terms and “monuments.” The former three terms are used to refer to stone markers that designate where someone is buried. Monuments, on the other hand, are often used to describe group burial sites, such as family burial plots. Perhaps you’ve noticed married couples buried together with the same headstone: those are technically monuments.

If the deceased isn’t buried at the site, these markers are referred to as “cenotaphs,” which is Greek for “empty tomb.” If you’ve ever been to a military cemetery where soldiers are honored—despite not being able to recover their bodies—those are a great example of cenotaphs.

General guidelines

When you need to purchase a headstone for a grave, it doesn’t matter whether you refer to what you want as a headstone, tombstone or gravestone. Your memorial company will make sure to ask questions to ensure they understand exactly what you’re looking for. In fact, you might opt for a grave marker (usually a flat bronze plaque) or another type of memorial stone.

Depending on where you live and the cemetery you’ve chosen, there may be other options available. For example, the cemeteries of New Orleans and Paris are famous for their above-ground mausoleums. (In New Orleans, they’re a must due to the high water table.) Alternatively, you may choose a cemetery that allows or encourages footstones, smaller stones placed at the foot of the grave with fewer engravings.

Whichever type of memorial you choose, getting the right headstones for graves is an important part of laying a loved one to rest. Be sure to work with a memorial company that prides itself on its experience and quality of service, like Phillipsburg Memorial Company. Our family-owned business has spent decades creating beautiful, unique monuments that will honor loved ones for years to come.

If you have questions about headstones, gravestones, tombstones or other monuments, reach out to Phillipsburg Memorial Company today to arrange a consultation. We’d be glad to assist you in selecting and inscribing the right memorial for your loved one.

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