Headstones in the Japanese Cemetry in Broome, Western Australia
A cemetery in rural Spain
A typical late 20th century headstone in the United States
A headstone, tombstone or gravestone is a marker, normally carved from stone, placed over or next to the site of a burial.
Originally, a tombstone was the stone lid of a stone coffin, or the coffin itself, and a gravestone was the stone slab that was laid over a grave. Now all three terms are also used for markers placed at the head of the grave.
These markers are often elaborately carved into crosses, or depicting angels, emblems, symbols of a trade or status, or symbols of death (skulls may be carved on old headstones, for example). Others bear inscriptions; frequently these are quotations from religious texts, or epigraphs in praise of the deceased. The most basic information which is included as standard, where known, generally includes the name of the deceased and their date of birth and death.
Graves and any related memorials are a focus for mourning and remembrance. The names of relatives are frequently added to a gravestone over the years, so that one marker may chronicle the passing of an entire family spread over decades. Since gravestones and a plot in a cemetery cost money, they are also a symbol of wealth or prominence in a community. Some gravestones were even carved and erected by people who were still alive as a testament to their wealth and status.
Gravestones which are well carved in hard-wearing stone may weather many centuries exposed in graveyards and still remain legible. Those which are fixed on the inside of churches, on the walls or on the floor (frequently as near to the altar as possible) may last much longer. Cemeteries do however require maintenance, as over the centuries stones may topple and injure people, or graves may simply become overgrown and their markers lost or vandalised.
Crematoriums frequently offer similar alternatives for families who do not have a grave to mark, but who want a focus for their mourning and for remembrance. Carved plaques inside the crematorium for example may serve this purpose.
- In Search Of Gravestones Old And Curious (http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/12978) by W.T. (William Thomas) Vincent, 1896, from Project Gutenberg