They rolled a tombstone away from the opening to the grave of Jesus Christ after he was crucified. They have been marking graves since the Roman times and before.
We use these terms interchangeably now. They all have a slightly different meaning as to how they mark a grave and how they originated. A tombstone was a cover for a stone coffin. Headstones were put at the head of the grave as a marker. Memorial plaques are put on the wall in the columbarium or mausoleum. They are also used as markers in conjunction with a tree, bush, or bench placed as a memorial to the deceased. A gravestone was a stone slab placed over the burial sight. These are still common sights in Europe or even in New Orleans where the graves are above ground because of the water table. Markers are the stones or bronze plaques that are flush with the ground and are common in some cemeteries that want to maintain a manicured look for the grounds and this makes it much easier.
Headstones evolved as a sign of wealth. The cost and design was a way for people to create funerary art and to leave a mark after they died. There is still some evidence of that today. A gravestone is an added expense to the cost of the funeral. Some of them are elaborate and can cost more than $15,000. The engravings and pictures can be added to them and carved in the form of an angel with stones coming from around the world. Contrast that with the mass burial service of the homeless people in Los Angeles that is held once a year for the people who are cremated and then put to rest in the same grave with a simple marker.
In this country, the early Native American Indians buried their dead in a mound of earth, known today as effigy mounds and sometimes formed in the shape of an animal. The early settlers marked their graves with a simple wooden cross or mound of stones. Markers of fieldstone came along that were etched with an awl. Slate also became a way of marking the grave for the Puritan settlers in the 1600’s.
In the early 1800’s, marble started to be used as a stone that was more durable and was still easier to carve. Marble, bronze, and granite were all readily used starting in the early 1900’s. If it was easy to carve, it also weathered, as evidenced in the headstones for graves that you see in the Civil War cemeteries. The wooden crosses might last 50-100 years before they decomposed. The wrought iron that was popular in the United Kingdom around the Victorian era would eventually rust away. The granite that is being used today will last a lot longer.
I would stop short of believing that the gravestone is going to last “forever”. This is a common phrase in the funeral industry. I heard about a technology that allows you to store a microchip in the stone that contains video, pictures, and a recording of the deceased. You use your cell phone to access it or you can access it at home on your computer. The pitch was that it will last for 3000 years and the data is stored “forever”. There is a good book called “The World Without Us” by Alan Weisman that gives you a little more perspective on just how long things last. I don’t know of any gravestone that is 3000 years old, unless it is in a museum in China. We are still a speck in the universe and the world is billions of years old. Headstones too will pass.
There is a new movement that is gaining momentum with the current generation that is dying called green burials. It is recognizing the fact that nothing is permanent or “forever” and is going full circle in a way. The burial is trying to minimize the impact on the environment. You are buried in a biodegradable container without having the body embalmed. The cemetery is a field of wild prairie grasses and trees that is not fertilized, watered, or mowed. The marker is a fieldstone that can be engraved or a tree that is planted. After 20 years, the plot can be reused for another burial. The belief is more in tune with the popular musical from Broadway called The Lion King. When the lion cub’s father dies, it is explained to him that he still lives on in the stars above, the grasses all around him and the rivers that flow through the prairies.