The Difference Between a Graveyard and a Cemetery


The death of a loved one often opens the door to many new discussions and decisions. This can include the choice of burial site.

The term graveyard is frequently used interchangeably with cemetery, but there are some key differences. This article will explore the differences between the two, as well as some of their etymology.


Many words associated with funerals and death have specific meanings that help clarify terms and procedures. Two such words are graveyard and cemetery. These two words may seem similar and can even be used interchangeably, but there is a difference between them.

During the Middle Ages, wealthy or important Christians were interred inside the church after they died, often in a crypt. Less wealthy congregants were buried outside in a section of the churchyard that became known as the graveyard. As populations increased and churchyards filled up, new burial grounds, unaffiliated with churches, were created and referred to as cemeteries.

This lack of religious affiliation allows people of all faiths to be buried in a cemetery, and there are also fewer restrictions regarding the headstones that can be used. Nevertheless, there are still some restrictions in place regarding re-using the graves of individuals who have been buried for decades because it can be difficult or impossible to locate living family members.


In the past, a graveyard described a burial site that was affiliated with a church. Since churches often had a monopoly on this type of land, they were able to enforce strict regulations over the burial ceremony and processes, including the headstones used. Churches would discourage overly intricate and overt headstone inscriptions, so that the graveyard stayed true to Christian values and traditions.

However, as churches ran out of space to bury the people who died, new sites were established outside of church property and these became known as cemeteries. These were typically much larger and tended to have more natural landscapes.

This type of burial grounds also allow for re-use, though this is controversial as many families consider reusing their family’s grave to be a desecration. For this reason, natural burials usually don’t include headstones and instead rely on exact GPS recordings or the placement of a tree or bush to mark a grave.


There are many symbols commonly found on gravestones. Some have clear meanings while others require a bit of speculation. Symbols may be carved or written on the stone and represent anything that the person buried deemed important.

Among the most common are a cross or anchor, which symbolizes hope and steadfastness, respectively. An anchor may be used as a disguised cross, or it may be the tribune of Saint Nicholas, patron saint of seamen. Skulls, either winged or on their side, serve as memento mori, a reminder of mortality.

Hands carved on gravestones often show clasping, pointing, and praying. Flowers, such as roses and tulips, often symbolize love or beauty. Ivy, which may be fashioned into a wreath, is representative of friendship and fidelity. Oak leaves symbolize strength and victory. Willows, which droop like the grieving weeping willow, are associated with feminine deities and the moon. They are a symbol of remembrance and sorrow. The interlaced Celtic knot symbolizes resurrection and immortality.


Many people use the terms graveyard and cemetery interchangeably, but they are not the same thing. A graveyard is a large ground that is used to bury the remains of dead people. A cemetery is a free-standing structure that contains the remains of people.

During the Middle Ages, wealthy and influential Christians were often interred inside of a church, typically in a crypt. However, less wealthy congregants were buried outside in a graveyard. Graveyards were often attached to a church and tend to be smaller due to land restrictions.

The word graveyard is derived from the Germanic word graban, meaning to dig. It is also related to the English words graf, grange and ditch. In addition, the word is cognate with the Latin term coemeterium or cimiterium. By the early 19th century, church graveyards were becoming full and independent sites called cemeteries began to rise in popularity as designated final resting places for those who did not want to be buried inside of a church.

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