Musical predecessors are memorial pavans like those by Anthony Holborne (Countess of Pembrokes Funeralle, 1599). In France, where this musical genre emerged first, strong influence of literary models, particularly of memorial poems that were popular from the 16th to the end end of 17th centuries, may have been another important factor.
The tombeau preeminently comes in two forms, as a slow elegiac allemande grave in 4/4 or as a pavan, a tri-partite renaissance dance already long out of date for the era of tombeaux, but with all the trappings of the allemande (cf. Denis Gaultier, Tombeau pour M. Racquette). There are also a few unique tombeaux that appear as gigues; that is because the gigue grave resembles the allemande in a number of respects.
As opposed to the Italian lamento, the tombeau should not use expressive elements of mourning, which were skeptically viewed in France. Nevertheless, certain typical onomatopoetic features were used: repeated note motifs depicting the knocking of Death at the door, ascending or descending diatonic or chromatic scales which depict the soul's tribulation and transcendence. Froberger's Lamentation on the Death of Ferdinand III or the Meditation sur ma Mort Future would be a prime example of such a form. Some tombeaux include a motif of four descending notes, a metaphor for grief given influential expression by John Dowland in his Lachrimae (1604). These genres offered many suitable expressive characteristics: the suspirans figure (a three-note upbeat), dotted rhythms, particularly in repeated notes, and slow-moving harmonies in the minor mode whose gravity is heightened by a tendency to settle on pedal points. Later examples also tend to use chromatic progressions related to the lamento bass. The few courante tombeaux exploit the same rhythmic features in triple metre.
Developed by Parisian lutenists (Denis Gaultier, Charles Mouton, Jacques Gallot, Du Fault), the genre was soon taken over by clavecinists (J. J. Froberger, Louis Couperin, both on the death of their friend Blancrocher in 1652) and was then spread into Central Europe (J. A. Losy, Sylvius Leopold Weiss).
Interestingly, tombeaux flourished in Catholic territories, where there was dearth of elaborate funeral music. At the end of the 18. century, the tombeau faded and was redicovered only at the opening of 20th century (cf. Maurice Ravel, Le Tombeau de Couperin, 1919). The tombeaux from the 20th and 21st centuries are often homages to the baroque era, even though some of them are dedicated to historical figures (cf. tombeaux by Toyohiko Satoh, Roman Turovsky-Savchuk).