The Difference Between Cemetery and Graveyard


While it might seem like the difference between cemetery and graveyard is semantic, language is a lot more fluid than we think.

Those of high social status were typically interred in a crypt within the church or its graveyard.

Over time, churches began to run out of space and large cemeteries unaffiliated with churches came into existence. This is when the difference between a graveyard and a cemetery became more apparent.


Graveyard describes burial grounds affiliated with a church. They are usually located on the church’s property and tend to be smaller than a cemetery because of limited space.

During the Middle Ages, people of high social status were often interred in crypts inside their place of worship. Less wealthy congregants were buried in the area around the church, which eventually became known as a graveyard.

The word cemetery describes a more modern burial ground that is not affiliated with any particular religion. It is derived from the Germanic word graban, which means to dig. Despite the fact that the words are used interchangeably today, linguistic precision is best served by using graveyard for church-affiliated burial grounds and cemetery for those that are unaffiliated with any religious institution.


The word graveyard has several origins, some of which have been discarded. The term is used to describe a burial ground that adjoins a church, although it has been used in place of other names throughout history.

Traditionally, those who were rich or noble were buried close to the church (the ‘churchyard’). As these sites became full, new burial grounds were established on land that was not consecrated. These are now called ‘cemeteries’.

Due to sanitary concerns, certain groups were forbidden from being buried in a graveyard (like criminals and the poor). This was also true for Christians until recently when they accepted cremation and ashes burial as an alternative. These days, there is very little distinction between a cemetery and a graveyard. This is partly due to the fact that many people use both terms interchangeably.

Place of Burial

From around the 7th century in Europe burial was under church control and could only be carried out on consecrated ground. Wealthy or otherwise powerful Christians were interred in crypts inside churches, while less wealthy congregants were buried outside in graveyards.

Burial can involve many rituals and is generally seen as a sign of respect for the dead. In some cultures, it may also symbolize rebirth or continuity with the past.

Burial can include containers such as shrouds, coffins, or grave liners that slow decomposition and prevent contamination by bacteria. Other options include embalming and mummification, and some cultures may dress the corpse in fancy or ceremonial garb. Decorations such as flowers, urns with ashes, and statues can be added to a graveyard to increase its rating.


Symbols are often associated with graveyards, both as motifs and carvings. These designs may represent the deceased’s beliefs, or may refer to their life and career. They are also a way of showing respect for the dead.

An anchor symbolises hope, the attribute of Saint Nicholas (patron saint of seamen), and the concept of steadfastness. The dove indicates purity and innocence; the butterfly represents metamorphosis or change. Ivy is a symbol of immortality, due to its hardiness and tendency to grow back. It is also a common horticultural symbol of remembrance.

Some symbols are common, such as the skull and crossbones and the hourglass. Others are less well known. The compass and carpenter’s square, for example, indicate the person was a Freemason. They may also have been a Masonic initiate.


The terms graveyard and cemetery are sometimes used interchangeably, but they have different meanings. In general, a graveyard is a burial ground that is affiliated with a church. The church typically controls who is buried in the graveyard and only members of that church can be buried there.

In medieval times, wealthy or important Christians were buried in crypts inside their place of worship. Less wealthy congregants were buried in the graveyard outside of the church.

When doctors wanted to study human anatomy, they would often hire grave robbers to steal skeletons from recently buried bodies and keep them in their cupboards at home. This is the origin of the idiom, “Every doctor has a skeleton in his cupboard.” Let your loved ones know your end-of-life wishes ahead of time with Cake’s free, easy-to-use planning tools.

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