What is a Graveyard?

When someone passes away, there is a general understanding that their remains will be buried. This is generally done at cemeteries and graveyards.

Though the words cemetery and graveyard are often used interchangeably, they do have some distinct differences. For one, a graveyard is located on church grounds while a cemetery does not have this connection.


In the Middle Ages, wealthy or influential Christians were often interred inside a church (in a crypt beneath the floor) after death. Less affluent members of the church were buried in the yard adjacent to the church, which became known as the graveyard. The compound word comes from the proto-Germanic words “graban” (“to dig”) and “gardan” (enclosed ground).

More recently, people have been buried in cemeteries that are separate from churches. The term cemetery is more common today, though the terms graveyard and burial ground are still sometimes used interchangeably.

In addition to being places where the dead are buried, cemeteries also tend to be the scene of superstition and legend. For example, many people believe that witches and sorcerers gather at night to perform sinister rituals in the graveyards. Other fanciful stories associated with cemeteries include grave-robbing for gold teeth and jewelry, thrilling sex encounters, and the legend of zombies. These tales are not to be taken seriously and should be viewed as simply fiction.


The use of graveyards throughout history can tell us a lot about the society that used them. Changing religious attitudes, ideas of death, burial and remembrance, use of symbolism and the natural environment surrounding graveyards have all affected how graveyards were developed and used over time.

During the early medieval period it was normal for people to be buried in churchyards alongside their congregants. Eventually it became clear that this was unsustainable and completely new places for burials were developed called cemeteries. These were separate from churchyards and were intended to be enjoyable community spaces.

The word cemetery derives from the Latin coemeterium, which means “place of sleep.” This is a rather apt name for an area set aside for resting the dead because that is exactly what they were designed to do. This makes them quite different from churchyard burial grounds, although some have religious affiliations. Cemeteries are also generally well-organized. This is partly because they are intended to be a place where mourners can visit the graves and relatives of those who have passed away.


The big clue to the difference between a graveyard and a cemetery is the word “cemetery.” The simple fact that a cemetery isn’t just a random piece of ground next to a church is proof that there was more thought put into it.

As a result, a cemetery tends to have more rules than a graveyard does. Among other things, it can be more difficult to get a plot in a cemetery because the church isn’t the sole proprietor of the site.

By the early 19th century, as populations grew, churches’ graveyards began to fill up. As a result, independent sites called cemeteries became more popular as designated final resting places. These were often located away from a church because they didn’t have the same restrictions regarding the number of burials allowed. These sites also didn’t have to be associated with any particular religion. In addition, they could allow more elaborate headstones than their church-affiliated brethren.


Symbols on headstones convey a variety of things about the person. A broken rose bud symbolizes a life cut short, while cherubs often indicate a child’s grave. Columns are common as they suggest strength. In some countries they are shaped like the oak tree, as a nod to the Druids and their use of this symbol in their religious ceremonies.

Flowers are also a common gravestone motif. Ivy, for example, signifies immortality as the vines cling to the stone. This plant is also associated with the Virgin Mary, and represents the hope of eternal love.

An angel atop a tombstone symbolizes guardianship and protection for the soul’s journey to ‘heaven’. A dove is a Christian symbol of hope and love, as well as of the Holy Spirit. A circle is a pre-Christian symbol of eternity and everlasting life. It is represented on some Christian gravestones as a cross surrounded by circles. The rolled-up ends of a scroll represent life’s journey and the future unknown.

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