Gravestones are an enduring feature of cemeteries. They mark the location of where the body has been buried, and act as a marker for people to visit when paying respects. Gravestones date back to around 3500 BC in Egypt. These early tombstones of ancient Egypt were rectangular-shaped flat stones with inscriptions carved into them which told who was buried within the grave and what they did while alive.
Tombstones of ancient Egypt were used for nobility, military leaders, officials of high position, priests, craftsmen and scribes; whereas commoners had no need for tombstones since their bodies were simply put into pits with stones piled over them without any inscription. The use of tombs is also evident during this time period in ancient Persia, where ancient tombs have been discovered containing clay figures representing the position of the body within the grave.
Another type of early tombstones are dolmen, which are large stones used for collective burials such as in what is now France and parts of Asia. Dolmen take their name from a table like stone which supports other stones above it forming a complete stone structure; they date back to around 4000 BC and can be found in various countries throughout Europe.
These structures were originally built by Neolithic societies and can contain anywhere from 1 to 50 or more capstones (the large flat top stone) supporting the many upright stones that make up the sides. (Gravstein) There’s no specific shape or size for these structures but there does seem to be an emphasis on the size of the capstones as well as the stones used to form the sides.(https://www.gravsteingrossisten.no/pages/gravstein-trondheim)
At around 3000 BC, another type of tombstone was being used which was a slab made from limestone with a rounded top and a groove at the base. This design allowed for it to be set into walls or stacked upon other slabs, similar to how modern gravestones are set up today. (https://www.gravsteingrossisten.no/blog/gravstotter-ma-sikres-godt) These early types of tombstones have been found at various burial sites throughout history such as Jericho in Palestine from 6000-3000 BC and Lachish in Israel from 2000-1500 BC.
When these types of grave markers were first created is not precisely known but they spread quickly throughout Europe and Asia Minor. Not much understood about why these early people used tombs and grave markers, but it is known that they believed in an afterlife and wanted to be remembered after their death. Tombs were also used for cultic purposes in ancient Mesopotamian societies.
Tombstones today are usually made from granite or marble and can be found in a variety of cubic shapes such as rectangle, square, trapezoid, and lozenge. The modern gravestone evolved from the medieval “gravestone” meaning a person who digs graves; this became commonly known around 1350 AD when burial grounds began to migrate away from cemeteries because of fear of Black Death.
A new type of burial ground emerged called a churchyard which did not contain individual tombstones but had one large communal tombstone known as a “gravestone” that marked the burial site of many individuals. From there, the meaning of the word gravestone has evolved to what we know it as today—a large stone used over a burial place in a cemetery.