Is it a Cemetery or a Graveyard?

Cemetery or Graveyard?

Search for “graveyard” in a dictionary and the definition will likely be a single word – “cemetery.” When used in everyday conversation, the two words are commonly interchanged without a thought, but these two eternal resting places have their differences.

Word Origins Tell a Story

The first known use of the word cemetery predates graveyard by three centuries. It stems from a melting pot of languages, according to, and roughly translate to “sleeping chamber” or “burial place.” Graveyard, on the other hand, appears to have evolved from the much older terms “grave” and “churchyard.” Churchyards, or land belonging to a church and usually adjacent to it, were regularly used for burial grounds although it was not their exclusive purpose. Designated areas within a churchyard that were reserved for burials came to be known as graveyards.

There is a long and complex history of Western burial practices, but suffice it to say that religious organization (i.e. the Church) usually dictated the terms. This means graveyards were often exclusive final resting places for members of a shared religion, and more often than not, of a specific local parish community. While graveyards used to dominate the scene for burials in the Western world, they’re extremely uncommon in modern use. Why is that?

Tempus Fugit

In recent centuries populations soared and cities grew, and local churchyards struggled to keep up with demand. That’s where cemeteries came in. City graveyards were developing a bad reputation due to some unfortunate side effects of the overcrowding and criminal activity, and there was no room to expand in these growing communities. Cemeteries became the practical alternative. Large plots of land in less developed areas solved the overcrowding issue. Most were public burial grounds often shared between multiple parishes or other communities with manicured gardens and excellent curb appeal.

In recent years, the term graveyard is more often used to suggest the spooky version of a cemetery. You can see this especially around Halloween on the listings for seasonal decorations. This association may come from the etymology of graveyard compared to cemetery, the former being more direct about its ties to death. It might also stem from residual popular opinions of bygone generations, remembering the days of overpacked graveyards from the 18th – 19th centuries.

Jewish cemeteries are generally referred to as cemeteries or burial grounds, and there are many traditions and laws around death and mourning. For instance, one ancient law prescribes that cemeteries must not be built too close to a home. Traditionally these grounds are reserved for Jewish burials, ideally with family members being buried close together or in a shared plot. A Muslim burial ground, also called an Islamic cemetery, usually has very simple gravemarkers and graves are oriented so that the deceased face the qibla direction. These cemeteries are also typically exclusive places for Islamic burials. So while the term graveyard is specifically used for Christian burial grounds tied to a place of worship, the concept of an exclusive burial ground overseen by and set aside for a specific religion is not in any way unique to that faith.

Historically in the primarily Christian Western world, minority religious groups, including both of these, were frequently poorly treated with little dignity offered to their sacred burial grounds by the greater community. Today, this is still the case with the sacred sites and burial grounds of many minority religions, especially relating to indigenous peoples of the Americas.

Historic GravestonesTo the End

Simply put, a graveyard is connected to a church whereas a cemetery is not. Contemporary usage tends to tie the term graveyard to historic sites, creepy atmospheres, and smaller plots whereas cemetery might signify an expansive, diverse burial grounds away from the center of town. For the most part, the terms remain interchangeable, though they can be used for their more specific definitions as well. There is a plethora of terms used for burial grounds, each with its own significance. Which ones are you acquainted with?


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