Headstones or gravestones have been used for centuries to mark the final resting place of millions of people. They are such an integral part of mourning in Western culture that many people have never questioned why they exist. 

For people outside of Western culture, grave headstones can seem like an odd tradition. In many parts of the world, graves go unmarked, or the deceased have final resting arrangements that don't involve a grave, such as burial at sea. This means that many people are unsure whether their deceased loved one needs a headstone and even less sure about what it should say.


To understand why headstones exist, it's first necessary to understand the history behind these grave markers. In the early days of human history, people buried their dead in various ways, usually depending on their status in the culture and how they died. For example, mass graves are often found in many Mesoamerican and Egyptian civilizations, corresponding to periods of plagues and natural disasters. These individuals were very likely cared for, but the technology of the time and the chaos that ensued after such an event often meant that there wasn't the time or labor required to give everyone an individual grave. High-status individuals like kings were often buried in elaborate, guarded tombs.

Around the fall of the Roman Empire, Celtic tribes and surrounding cultures are believed to have begun marking graves with headstones. In fact, a headstone has traditionally been defined as a stone placed at the head of a grave. The term "headstone" is derived from the Old English word "hēafodstān," which means "stone at the head [of a grave]." 

At the time, the tribes in this region were relatively well settled, and many members wanted a way to remember their loved ones for years to come. There was also an abundance of stones, such as granite, in the area, making it an ideal material to create a long-lasting monument to a deceased loved one. 

Early on, the time it took to carve a headstone meant that these monuments were typically reserved for kings and nobility. Other people would use cheaper materials, such as wood, to create grave markers, but these markers typically did not last more than a few decades. As more people began to realize the lasting impact of a headstone, the practice spread to the merchant class.

In many cases, families would save for several years to purchase a headstone. If death was unanticipated, this might mean that a temporary marker would be used until the final headstone could be purchased. As families started to spread out and members began to immigrate to the West, the practice spread along with them. Ensuring that a permanent headstone was in place so that loved ones would know where a family member was buried was essential to people who might be gone for decades before they were able to visit the grave of their loved one.

Are All Headstones the Same?

Even from the beginning of this practice, headstone design and the wording on the stones differed a lot between regions, cultures, and periods. This is important to remember if you are in the process of designing a headstone for yourself or your loved ones. While there might be a lot of different opinions, there truly is no one "right" way to create a headstone.

Throughout history, we can find examples of many different types of headstones. In France, for example, the tradition was to cover the foot of the grave with a flat piece of stone. This was known as a gravestone, and there are many cemeteries throughout the United States where these "flat headstones" are the norm. 

The Puritans brought the custom of family or "shared" headstones. These headstones marked multiple graves in the same family, such as a married couple or a mother who had died at the same time as one of her children. Family headstones are still very common today, and many married couples choose to be buried next to each other with a shared marker.

What Goes on a Headstone?

While it is possible to carve just about anything on a headstone, there are a few things that nearly everyone agrees should go on there. Typically, this includes the name of the deceased and the dates that they were born and died. 

Many people will also choose to include an engraved picture of their loved one and an epitaph. Epitaphs are meaningful sayings to the deceased or their loved ones. Typical examples include verses from religious scripture and famous quotes.

Pictures are a relatively new addition to modern headstones. New technology now allows stone carvers to create highly detailed carvings with the assistance of computer-guided lasers. The result is a beautiful tribute to a loved one that will last centuries.

Of course, headstones can have just about anything you want. Some people choose to include pictures or artwork that were meaningful to their loved ones or express the things that were important to them during their life. It's even possible to custom design the shape and size of the headstone. It's not unusual to create headstones in the shape of a heart, cross, or a unique shape.

If you need help designing or purchasing a headstone for yourself or a loved one, visit us at Quiring Monuments. We have years of experience helping people create and design headstones, and we would be honored to help you with yours.