What’s the Difference Between a Tomb and a Grave?

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The language of death and the words you use may depend on your age, religion, or the area of the country in which you live. Some words “die out” or change in meaning, and others get used as euphemistic expressions to describe the harsh realities of death.

For example, when discussing a place for burial, do you call it a “cemetery,” “graveyard” or “churchyard?” Even though these words generally have the same meaning, what are the nuances in meaning that separate them?

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Also, consider the types of grave markers. Do you call them “headstones,” “grave markers,” “monuments,” or “tombstones”?

Today, let’s discuss the difference between the words tomb vs grave. Even though they may generally refer to the same thing, which word is used more often with your peers? What is the difference in meaning between the two terms?

What’s a Tomb?

The word “tomb” has four definitions: 

  1. An excavation in earth or rock for the burial of a corpse; grave.
  2. A mausoleum, burial chamber, or the like.
  3. A monument for housing or commemorating a dead person.
  4. Any sepulchral structure.

The word can be traced back to the Anglo-French word “tumbe” or the Old French “tombe,” which means “tomb, monument, tombstone.” It is also related to the Late Latin word “tumba” and the Greek word “tymbos,” which means “mound, burial mound,” generally “grave, tomb.”

It may also be related to words meaning ”to swell,” “earth-hill,” “small hill,” and “mound.” 

If you look carefully at these definitions, you will notice that the word “tomb” can refer to the hole in the ground that is dug to hold a corpse, but it can also refer to an above-ground building designed to house the dead. You can also use it as a synonym with the word headstone, or it can describe a stone vault, similar to a casket, that can sit above ground or below ground.

Examples

Not sure how to use the word “tomb” in a sentence? Check out four examples based on the previous dictionary definition usages.

  1. I arrived early to the cemetery and watched as workers dug my mother’s tomb. Only a few hours later, her casket would be placed inside its earthen home.
  2. We visited the most famous tomb in the world: the Taj Mahal in India.
  3. Watching the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is a moving experience.
  4. The art museum showcases many tombs, from the Egyptian sepulcher that once held a pharaoh to a model of an ancient Greek mausoleum.
ยป MORE: Honor your loved one's memory by taking the right next steps. Here is your free post-loss checklist.

 

What’s a Grave or Grave Marker?

Like the word “tomb,” the word “grave” has four definitions. As a noun, the term “grave” can refer to:

  1. An excavation made in the earth in which to bury a dead body.
  2. Any place of interment; a tomb or sepulcher: a watery grave.
  3. Any place that becomes the receptacle of what is dead, lost, or past: the grave of unfulfilled ambitions.
  4. Death: O grave, where is thy victory?

Even though the word can be used as an adjective and a verb, the origin of the word “grave” can be traced back to the Old English græf, which means “grave; ditch, trench; cave.” It is also related to the Proto-Germanic word *grafa-/graba” meaning “grave, tomb.” The Old Norse word “gröf” means “cave.” It is also related to the Old English word “grafan” which means “to dig.” 

If you look carefully at the dictionary definitions of the word “grave,” you will see that the word can be used to describe the hole in the earth created to bury the dead. In fact, this definition is almost exactly the same as the first dictionary definition of the word “tomb.”

You can also use it to describe the structure used for burial or interment. The word “grave” can also refer to literal or figurative death.

Examples

Some sentences using the word “grave” to help you understand using it as a noun correctly.

  1. The family members worked together to dig the grave of their patriarch.
  2. The grave of the mafia boss was very understated.
  3. My hall closet acted as a grave for unused sports equipment.
  4. The graves of my unborn babies were a key element to my depression.

Graves vs. Tombs: 5 Key Differences

It seems as if the difference between the words “graves” and “tombs” is negligible. In fact, the words appear in each other’s definitions. 

Even though in some instances, the words can be used interchangeably, some subtle differences can include using “tomb” or “grave” in a sentence.

1. The word “tomb” often refers to an above-ground structure.

Search the phrase “famous tombs” online, and you will find photos of the Taj Mahal and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Even though the first definition of the word tomb may refer to an “excavation in earth,” the common usage often refers to mausoleums and similar structures.

2. The word “grave” often refers to the burial place of the deceased.

Search the phrase “famous graves” online, and you will find photos of cemetery headstones that label the site of a famous person’s burial.

3. The origins of the words “tomb” and “grave” developed from words with different meanings.

The word “tomb” refers to small hills or mounds. The word “grave” comes from words related to caves or digging.

4. Some may use one word over another depending on the burial method.

For example, some may refer to a grave lined in masonry material as a tomb. Others may view a grave more as a casket or body that is in contact with the earth.

5. Consider the definition of “entombment” and “interment.”

The word “entombment” is related to the word “tomb.” The term “entombment” is defined as “the placing of a dead body in a tomb.” 

However, the definition of the word “interment” is “the burial of a corpse in a grave or tomb.”

Be Clear When Making Your End of Life Plans

What have we learned from this word study? Unfortunately, we learned that when it comes to burial practices, you can use the words “tomb” and “grave” interchangeably. This means you need to be rather precise when describing your choice of final resting place when establishing your end-of-life plans.

Here are some types of burials to consider:

Burial

You can choose to have your body placed in a casket (or coffin) and buried in a cemetery. This is often referred to as the “traditional burial process.” You may also choose to be cremated and have your ashes buried in a graveyard. Most cemeteries require that the casket or urn to go within a concrete vault to keep the ground from collapsing at the burial site.

Above-ground Options

If you would rather not have your remains laid to rest underground, you could ask to be entombed in a mausoleum. Mausoleums, above-ground structures that either hold the casketed or cremated remains of individuals, can be private or public.

Other Options

Plenty of other “modern” burial alternatives may be available in your area. You may want to look into water burials, space burials, sky burials, or conservation burials. 

If you choose to have your body cremated, your choices for final resting places are almost limitless. You can have some of your cremated remains placed inside a firework, pressed into a vinyl record, or made into a diamond.

Figure Out What Is Right For You, Then Make a Plan

You have choices. You can choose to have your body placed in a pine box and buried on your family farm. You could also have your body placed in an elaborately designed sarcophagus and put inside your own private mausoleum. The choice is up to you, your family, and the available financial resources.

Regardless of what you want, make sure you use precise enough language in the plans you leave behind so your loved ones will know what type of “tomb” or “grave” you envision.

While you make plans for your final resting place, make other decisions about your funeral services. Choose the color of your casket lining, the clothing you wish to be laid to rest in, and the type of flowers you would like displayed next to your body.

Pick the music and readings or your funeral service. Choose which photograph you would like to have on the funeral program’s cover and write your own obituary.

As you can tell from our discussion about the differences between the words “tomb” and “grave,” precision matters when sharing your beliefs and wishes with others. Even though you will be gone, your loved ones will want to do everything they can to fulfill your desires. 


Sources:
  1. “Entombment.” “Grave.” “Tomb.” Dictionary. https://www.dictionary.com/browse/tomb
  2. “Grave.” “Tomb.” Online Etymology Dictionary. https://www.etymonline.com/word/grave

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