What Is a Burial Cairn and Why Is It Used?

The Gilkey memorial, a cairn at the base of K2, memorializes the death of climber Art Gilkey and those who died attempting to reach the mountain's summit. Photo © Nadeem Khawar/Moment Open/Getty Images

A cairn consists of stones and rocks of varying sizes that were intentionally stacked or piled up loosely, i.e., without mortar or a bonding agent, in order to create a visually conspicuous marker or landmark. The appearance of cairns, and the reasons for their creation, varies widely.

Visually, a cairn can comprise a handful of rocks that form a small pile to hundreds of tons of stone that resemble mountains and dominate the landscape, such as Ireland's Loughcrew, an ancient burial site that was created around 3000 B.C.

Human beings have built cairns for thousands of years in order to mark hiking or hunting trails; for religious, astronomical or defense purposes; and to both honor the dead and to denote burial sites, among various other reasons.

A famous, modern cairn resides at the base of K2, the second-highest mountain on Earth. In 1953, an American expedition attempted to conquer the as-yet-unreached summit when climber Art Gilkey became ill and eventually died despite efforts to save his life.

The cairn created at the base of K2 initially served as a memorial to Gilkey (whose remains were lost until 1993), but now serves as a memorial to every climber who loses his or her life while attempting to conquer the mountain. Many such victims have actually been buried at the site of the Gilkey memorial.​

Word Origin

The modern English word cairn derives from the Scottish term "carne," which originated from the Gaulish word "carn," meaning a "heap of stones or rocky hill." It is probable that the term cairn shares a linguistic origin with the word "horn," which is called "karnon" in Greek and "cornu" in Latin.


A cairn is sometimes referred to as a barrow or burial mound, although these are technically incorrect references because both consist of stones/rocks and earth or dirt.

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  • "cairn (n.)." Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved April 13, 2015. http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?allowed_in_frame=0&search=cairn
  • "horn (n.)." Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved April 13, 2015. http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=horn