The Difference Between a Graveyard and a Cemetery

The graveyard is an area of land used for burial. In Europe, wealthy congregants were interred inside a church in a crypt, but less-wealthy people were buried outside in the churchyard. Over time, this section of land became known as a graveyard.

Re-using old grave sites can upset families, especially if family members were unaware that the old graves could be re-used. Often, cemetery authorities attempt to notify families before re-using old grave sites.

What is a Graveyard?

A graveyard is a place where people are buried. It’s a compound word, formed from the proto-Germanic ‘graban’, meaning to dig, and the Old English ‘gardenan’, an enclosed area of land. During the Middle Ages, wealthy or influential Christians were usually interred inside a church after death, in a crypt beneath the floor. Less affluent congregants were buried in the outside section of the churchyard, which came to be known as the graveyard.

As Europe’s population grew, it became clear that the capacity of church graveyards would soon be exceeded. Hence, new independent sites for burial, which did not have religious affiliations, appeared, and were called cemeteries.

Today, you can use the terms graveyard and cemetery interchangeably. However, if linguistic precision is important to you, it’s best to stick to the traditional definition of a graveyard being located on church grounds or adjacent to one. A cemetery, on the other hand, is a more modern concept that does not have any connection to a place of worship and is often quite large in size.

The History of Graveyards

In many cultures, people associate cemeteries with superstition and legend. They are believed to have a dark aura and serve as altars in supposed black magic ceremonies, devil worshipping and similar clandestine happenings. People often believe that the ghosts of the dead are allowed to roam the grounds at night time and can be seen mingling with the living. They are also believed to be a place where witches and sorcerers collect skulls and bones for their sinister rituals.

In the past, wealthy families would have their dead buried in churchyards or graveyards, while the poor were buried on the outside of the walls. This created a division between the social classes and this is illustrated in Shakespeare’s famous scene where Hamlet discovers that Yorick’s skull has been dug up.

As population increased, churches ran out of space to bury the dead. They were also worried that the stench from a full cemetery could cause disease and even epidemics. This led to the development of new burial grounds away from city centre areas.

The Difference Between a Graveyard and a Cemetery

Despite being used interchangeably in common speech, there is actually a difference between a graveyard and a cemetery. The difference is subtle but important.

Graveyards are traditionally a burial ground that adjoins a church. This means that they can only be used by members of that particular church or religion. This limits the number of people who can be buried there and means that they are smaller than a typical cemetery.

Cemeteries, on the other hand, are not associated with a specific church and are much larger. This also allows them to bury non-religious people as well.

There are a few other differences between the two. A cemetery will often be newer and better maintained than a graveyard. Also, a cemetery will have more space and be more neatly divided into plots for each family. Graveyards, on the other hand, will often have older tombstones and a more chaotic layout. This is because they tend to be located in old churchyards.

The Future of Graveyards

As urbanisation accelerates, finding enough space for cemeteries is becoming a huge challenge. The cemetery industry has had to come up with a few innovative strategies to deal with this issue.

In a lot of countries, people rent the right to bury their bodies in a specific spot. The graves aren’t kept forever though, they get cleared as soon as the relatives or a church stops paying for the space. This makes for a much faster throughflow of burial spots.

Companies are also working on eco-friendly ways of dealing with dead people. For example, some have created tree planting urns that turn your cremated remains into seeds and help them grow into trees.

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