Prepared by Elisabeth Lindsay.
A headstone is a shaped or hewn stone placed at the "head" of a grave to mark its location to identify the person buried there. Typically, the name of the deceased is carved into the headstone, along with the date of birth and date or year of death. Headstones may contain other information and/or symbols, and may also contain an epitaph. Headstones may be small or large, simple or ornate. Headstone, tombstone, and grave marker are used synonymously, although some distinctions can be made.
Headstones are valuable resources for genealogists and family researchers, for the family information they contain. In some cases the inscription on a headstone my be the best available source of information on an individual, especially in times before the civil registration of births and deaths and in the absence of other documentation such as a family Bible. Headstones are made of a variety of materials from limestone to granite, and are to a greater or lesser extent, subject to erosion, vandalisim, or other damage. For this reason, the documenting of information on headstones is extremely important, and then sharing the information making the it available to others.
In the past, a common way to retrieve information from badly weathered headstones was to take a rubbing of the inscription; today, however, rubbings are discouraged as they can further damages headstones, and the practice is forbidden by many cemeteries. Keep in mind, also, that information on headstones can be wrong; so while it is important to transcribe and present the information "exactly" as it appears, when using headstone inscriptions to document your research, be sure to compare that information with other sources for accuracy. This type of verification is extremely important.