Cemeteries vs Graveyards: What’s the difference?

Although the terms Cemetery and Graveyard are used interchangeably, they aren’t actually one and the same. Let’s unpack the main differences below.
Cemeteries vs Graveyards: What’s the difference?

When it comes to final resting places, a ‘graveyard’ isn’t just the Americanised version of a ‘cemetery’. Although the two terms are now relatively synonymous, on a technical level, they once referred to two different sites of burial, with varying rules and regulations. 

What is a graveyard?

The word comes from the proto-Germanic ‘graban’ meaning “to dig” and “gardan” – referring to an enclosed area of land. Let us take you back to the Middle Ages, where wealthy or influential Christian figures were typically laid to rest inside a church after they passed, sometimes in a crypt below the floor.

So what about everyone else? Well, those who were less wealthy were buried outside in the churchyard. Over time, this area became more commonly known as a graveyard. 

What is a cemetery? 

The word ‘cemetery’ refers to a location where people are buried after they die. It comes from the Greek word ‘koimeterion’, meaning ‘sleeping room’ or ‘resting place’. Cemeteries are larger pieces of property that are either owned by the city or by an independent business.

Now that we’re across both terms, let’s look into the factors that influence whether a site can be called a graveyard or a cemetery. Here are the main ones:

The location and the size 

As we touched on earlier, a graveyard is a burial ground that is associated with a church. This is usually located on church grounds, or adjacent to it. Since cemeteries are owned by the city or by an independent business, they are typically much larger. So, that’s big difference #1.

Religious customs and requirements

Throughout history, graveyards were owned by the church. This means that often, only church members were allowed to be buried in that location. A cemetery, however, did not have any of these religious requirements. So no matter their faith, the average person was able to be buried there (this included people of no faith). 

Headstone requests and requirements

In graveyards, the church did not encourage elaborate displays on the headstones, which had to be unpolished and colourless. In a cemetery (especially now) families are typically able to exert more freedom with the headstone colours, epitaphs and inscriptions, designs and materials used.

Wrap up

As the world spins on, the meaning behind our words changes to reflect our modern society and the zeitgeist of the time. While the terms ‘graveyards’ and ‘cemeteries’ may seem the same (and often are used interchangeably), the differences stem from the use of the words throughout history.

Today, the distinctions are mostly obvious through pop culture references and depending on where you live (as we said earlier, in Australia, we tend to say ‘cemetery’, while in some American movies, you’ll often hear them talk of a spooky ‘graveyard’, for example). Either way – just like we humans change over the years, these two terms have adapted over time, too. (The beauty of the English language, right?!)

We know – there are SO many decisions to be made every day, so let’s make it easy for future you (and your family). Prepaying for your funeral with Willed removes the financial burden for your loved ones when the time comes. You can also outline your wishes, including what type of grave or headstone you might like. Ready to get started?

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