Today, gravestones serve as memorial markers for our beloved deceased; as status symbols for those wealthy enough to afford very large or decorative ones; and as ritual symbols in a variety of religions. From primitive markers and slabs to cover graves to ornate and decorative works of art, the gravestone has come a long way over the centuries.

Early Grave Markers

Some of the oldest known stone grave markers date back to between 3,000 and 4,000 B.C. These markers, known as dolmens or chamber tombs, are a type of megalithic monument, roughly hewn stones used to mark boundaries or in religious or funerary capacities. Unlike modern gravestones, the dolmen is not a single stone to mark the grave. It is a whole burial chamber itself, made up of one large stone supported on atop two or more upright stones to form the tomb.

From Gravestone to Headstone

The earliest gravestones, like the dolmen, were literally graves made of stone or stones intended to cover whole graves. These coverings served to mark a grave as well as to keep the grave's occupants in the ground. Over time, though, the words gravestone and headstone came to be interchangeable. Today, in the United States at least, we do not usually cover whole graves with a traditional stone, but the gravestones we use do come in an interesting variety of styles.

Origin Stories

Marking the places where our dead are buried seems to be a human instinct older than recorded history. Styles of gravestones can be traced to different origins. The common upright headstone most likely originated in European and American Colonial churchyard burial grounds and evolved to resemble those of today, with details of the deceased's life engraved on the stone. Another common graveyard site, the obelisk-style gravestone, first appeared in ancient Egypt.

From Rags to Riches

In the Americas, early gravestones were not always stones. Frequently, they were merely wooden markers with a few words about the deceased and no symbols. The Puritan view of iconography forbids any kind of symbolism. However, following the Great Awakening -- a significant religious revolution in the colonies -- the Puritans' grim view of death began to soften. Gravestones, which were now often real stone, began appearing with pleasant and reassuring imagery. Finally, the Victorian era brought about a new outlook on gravestones, and people began spending large sums on decorative and elaborate markers.