Cemetery vs. Graveyard: 4 Differences to Know


These days, many people use the words cemetery and graveyard interchangeably. However, while they both refer to places where we bury our dead, cemeteries and graveyards differ in the location, space, religious, and headstone requirements. 

So if the words essentially refer to places with a similar concept, why should you care about the differences? There are a few reasons. First of all, some people care about using precision when it comes to words, just for the sake of accuracy.

But beyond that, if you’re planning for your end of life, it’s important to be as clear as possible in your instructions so that your next of kin knows exactly where you’d like to be laid to rest and why. If the difference is important to you, it helps to be able to explain why so that you can help them to understand as well. 

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Let’s drill down into what exactly makes a cemetery a cemetery and what makes a graveyard a graveyard so that you can be sure to make your final wishes known, and so you can be sure to educate your next of kin so they know the difference as well.  

What’s a Cemetery?

A cemetery is a place where people are buried. They are not associated with a church, so they are often larger as they’re able to spread out beyond land adjacent to a church. Both religious people and nonbelievers can be buried there.

 The word cemetery dates back to the late 14th century. Its roots can be traced back to the Old French word “cimetiere,” which is itself derived from the Medieval Latin “cemeterium.” Its literal translation is “a place set aside for the burial of the dead.” 

It can also be tied to the ancient Greek word “koimeterion,” which was a sleeping place or dormitory. Somewhere over the years, the terms “sleep” and “death” became blurred together. 

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What’s a Graveyard?

A graveyard, like a cemetery, is a place where people are buried after they die. Graveyards are affiliated with a church and are typically located on church grounds. They tend to be smaller due to land limitations, and thus, are often choosier. Only members of their religion and sometimes only members of that specific church can be buried in a graveyard. 

The etymology behind the word graveyard is somewhat straightforward. It is, after all, a yard filled with graves. It is interesting to note though that the word “grave” is derived from a proto-Germanic word “graban” which means “to dig”.

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4 Differences Between Cemeteries and Graveyards

Differences Between Cemeteries and Graveyards

To further understand the distinction between “cemetery” and “graveyard,” it helps to make some side-by-side comparisons. Let’s have a look at where the differences truly break down.

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1. Location

Cemeteries refer to large burial grounds that are not affiliated with a church. A graveyard, on the other hand, refers to a burial ground that is located on a church’s property. Graveyards, on the whole, tend to be much smaller than cemeteries. 

2. Space requirements

Starting around the 7th century, churches had complete control over burials. This meant that most burials took place in the graveyards adjacent to the church.

But as the population grew over time, graveyard space became limited. This is when cemeteries unaffiliated with churches came into being. 

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3. Religious requirements

Because graveyards are attached to the church, churches may have stipulations that only members of that particular faith be buried there. Cemeteries, on the other hand, are secular. This means people of all faiths can be buried there. 

4. Headstone requirements

Just like many churches have stringent requirements over the faiths of people interred there, they may have particular requirements about headstones in church-owned graveyards. Headstones are typically required to be made of granite or natural stone. 

Churches typically demand that stone be uncolored and unpolished and discourage elaborate memorials. Even headstone inscriptions are regulated to ensure that they adhere to Christian values. The plus side of this austere aesthetic is that at least the cost of a headstone isn’t too high. You may also want to ensure your next of kin knows about cleaning a headstone

Cemeteries, on the whole, have much fewer restrictions when it comes to headstones. You can go as simple or as over the top as you want. 

What’s in a Name? Cemetery vs. Graveyard 

Language is a lot more fluid than a lot of people realize. Over time, the meanings of words change to accommodate changes in the way people use them. So while cemetery and graveyard were originally distinct words coined at different times in human history, these days the distinctions are a lot more subtle. 

At the end of the day, whichever word you use, your meaning should be clear enough to anyone you’re trying to communicate with. Especially the people who will handle your arrangements after your death. 

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