When you're caring for the remains of a loved one, it's easy to become confused by the many options available. While you're likely dealing with hundreds of details surrounding the funeral, you will likely also have to make decisions about the burial. 

Not many people know the details of burying a loved one and setting up a memorial marker. Often, people come into our office or visit our website, not knowing what to ask. One of the most common questions we hear is that they are looking for a headstone or a gravestone, but they're not really sure which one. The truth is that while there was once a big difference between these types of memorial markers, today, the terms are used interchangeably.


When understanding the difference between a headstone and a gravestone, knowing the history behind these two types of memorials is an excellent place to start. A headstone has traditionally been defined as a stone placed at the head of a grave, while a gravestone is defined as a stone placed at the foot of a grave. The term "headstone" is derived from the Old English word "hēafodstān," which means "stone at the head [of a grave]." The term "gravestone" is derived from the Old French word "grevois," which means "grave."

The first gravestones were used in the late medieval period in Europe. They were usually made from stone or wood and placed on the grave's foot.

The use of headstones and gravestones has varied over time and from culture to culture. In some cultures, headstones are used to mark the graves of important people, while in other cultures, gravestones are used for this purpose. 

The use of headstones and gravestones is a matter of personal preference. Some people prefer to use headstones because they feel it is more respectful to the deceased. Others prefer to use gravestones because they feel that it is more practical. Ultimately, deciding which type of memorial to use is up to the individual.

What is a Headstone?

The first memorial markers that we would recognize as headstones were used in the early medieval period in Europe. They were usually made from stone or wood, depending on the ability and means of the loved ones creating the monument. Before this, graves were typically only marked if a person was particularly wealthy or a ruling class member. Otherwise, most people were buried in mass graves or crypts.

Headstones were originally placed so that the person who died was facing east. This was originally done because of pagan beliefs in the Middle Ages that resurrection would happen when the sun rose. Today, there are still many cemeteries that follow this tradition. Still, it is becoming increasingly common for the direction of the body (and therefore also the headstone) to align with whatever is most aesthetically pleasing.

A headstone has traditionally been an upright monument placed at a grave's head. Typically, they are inscribed with the name of the person who died, the dates of the deceased's birth and death, and a message from the family known as an epitaph. Headstones are usually made of granite or another type of heavy material. It's not unusual to see headstones that mark the graves of two or more people, such as a double headstone marking the shared grave of a married couple or a mother and child.

What is a Gravestone?

While gravestones were originally placed at the foot of a grave, today, "gravestone" usually refers to a marker covering the entire gravesite. Like headstones, they can be inscribed with the name of the person who died, the dates of their birth and death, and an epitaph.

Because a gravestone is meant to cover the entire grave, they tend to be very large. However, they are usually made of granite or other very solid and heavy rock because they are designed to last for thousands of years. This means they are usually harder to transport and more expensive than headstones.

How are Gravestones and Headstones Different?

The main difference between headstones and gravestones is that headstones are upright and mark the top or head of a gravesite, while gravestones lie flat against the ground and mark the base or entirety of a gravesite. Essentially, gravestones are meant to mark the location of a grave, while headstones are meant to mark the entire footprint of the gravesite.

Headstones are usually smaller than gravestones because they don't need to cover the entire gravesite. Because they are typically placed upright while gravestones are laid flat, making a headstone as large as a customer wants is possible. The only restrictions are usually size rules imposed by the cemetery. The size of the grave itself typically limits gravestone size.

However, remember that it is very common for people today to mix up these terms or use them interchangeably. That is why many customers are confused when picking out a memorial marker. Many of our customers have heard one of these terms used their whole life and are surprised to learn that there are differences.

Contact us today if you need assistance choosing the right memorial marker for yourself or a loved one. We have years of experience helping people find and design the perfect memorial.