Public vs. Private Cemeteries: What’s the Difference?


Most people don’t spend much time researching cemeteries they need a plot for a loved one’s burial. There’s a lot to consider when buying a burial plot.

Even if the deceased is cremated, the family may choose a cemetery plot to bury the urn. Regardless of whether your loved one is buried or cremated, this article may be relevant to you. 

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Although there’s a lot to discuss, this article will inform you of the distinction between public and private burial grounds. Please understand that we’re not qualified to provide legal advice regarding your rights to be buried in a particular place.

This is general information about the difference between the two types of cemeteries. 

What’s a Public Cemetery?

A public cemetery is used by the general community. This means that the difference between a public or private cemetery has little to do with ownership and more to do with whether it is utilized by the general public instead of a private family.

A public cemetery may be a community cemetery or one affiliated with a place of worship. 

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What’s a Private Cemetery?

A private cemetery is one where lots are not sold to the general public. Private cemeteries are usually limited to family members who chose to be buried on private ground. Sometimes those private cemeteries are no longer owned by members of the family who started them.

Regardless, they are still considered private cemeteries if other members of the general public are not buried in that spot. 

Questions to Consider When Choosing a Cemetery

We’ve informed you of the general differences between a public and private cemetery.

Before you decide on a cemetery for your loved one, here are some questions to consider. 

Did your loved one wished to be buried, cremated, or placed in a mausoleum?

If your loved one wanted their body to be placed in a casket for burial or entombment, you’ll need to pick out a cemetery plot or a place in the mausoleum. Not all public cemeteries have mausoleums, so your choices may be limited if you go that route. 

If your loved one wanted to be cremated and have the remains placed in the cemetery, you’ll need to either pick out a plot or a columbarium niche for the interment of the urn. Again, some public cemeteries may have aboveground burial options for urns. 

If a private cemetery is available, would your loved one want to have been placed in it?

If your family happens to have rural connections, you may find private cemetery space available for your loved one. Some families also build private mausoleums to hold the remains of generations of family members.

While choosing to be buried in a private cemetery may be less expensive than paying for a plot in a public cemetery, it does not come without complications. Private cemeteries are not always maintained.

Even if the family takes care of the plot for the first 50 years of its existence, future generations may not be able or willing to maintain it. 

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Did your loved one want to be buried in a section of the cemetery that was assigned to a particular religious group?

Some cemeteries have sections designated for a specific faith group.

For example, Catholic sections of cemeteries are sometimes blessed. If this was important to your loved one, you might try to seek a public cemetery affiliated with a church or other religious institution. 

Was the type of headstone important to your loved one?

Some cemeteries only allow ground-level headstones to be installed at the head of graves. This makes cemetery maintenance much easier. If your loved one already bought a headstone, you may be limited in the public cemetery that it will be placed. 

Before you purchase a cemetery plot, make sure you read the fine print on the contract regarding the purchase and placement of the headstone.

Where are other family members interred?

Many people find comfort in the idea of laying next to one another for eternity. If this was important to your family member, you might want to choose a public or private cemetery based on where your ancestors or other loved ones were laid to rest.

Check the personal papers of your loved one. Sometimes families purchase additional burial plots when laying other family members to rest. This means there may already be a space for your mom next to her parents. 

How did your family member feel about grave decorations?

Some cemeteries, particularly green cemeteries, have very specific guidelines for what is allowed to be used as a grave decoration. More cemeteries are banning the use of artificial flowers or other non-biodegradable decorations. 

If you would prefer to leave flowers of any type on the grave of your loved one, make sure you choose a cemetery with liberal grave decoration policies. 

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Did your loved one wish to be buried in a green cemetery?

Green cemeteries are popping up across the country. They have particular guidelines on what type of casket and whether you can embalm the body.

Some green cemeteries may not use harsh chemicals to maintain the grass and they may limit grave decorations to ones you can find in nature. 

Did your loved one want to be buried in a graveyard or a cemetery?

Most graveyards and cemeteries are public cemeteries, as the general public can usually purchase plots in both types of burial spots. Graveyards tend to be smaller than cemeteries and may be connected with a church. Sometimes church graveyards have strict religious requirements that a person must meet before purchasing a plot. 

Church graveyards may also have strict guidelines on what is engraved on your loved one’s headstone or monument.

What is your budget for a cemetery plot?

There’s a huge difference in the price of burial plots across the U.S. If you have a limited budget, you may need to shop around for the least expensive plot in your area. Cemetery plots in rural areas tend to be less costly than those in urban areas. 

There are many other costs associated with a cemetery burial. You’ll also need to figure in the purchase of a headstone and casket, the cost of opening the grave, the cost of the vault that the casket will be placed into, and the cost of a graveside service. You’ll also pay for these services if you choose to bury your loved one’s urn in a cemetery (even though urns are much less expensive than caskets.)

You may be able to save money on the purchase of a burial plot if you pre-purchase it well in advance before it is needed. Sometimes individuals sell burial plots that they know they won’t use, and they are usually willing to negotiate on the price. You may also be able to get a group discount if your purchase cemetery plots for everyone in the family at the same time. 

Make Your Wishes Known

Besides informing you about the difference between public and private cemeteries, we hope that you also learned that there are many choices to consider when making end-of-life plans.

Even if your loved one lets you know their desire to be cremated, buried, or entombed, there are still many more choices to make about the services.

Make it easy for your loved ones. Make detailed funeral plans and share them with your family. Choose whether to be buried in a public or private cemetery. Pick the flowers for your funeral service. Pre-purchase your headstone. 

Making your own funeral arrangements is one of the greatest gifts you can give to your family members. Allow them to mourn your loss instead of spending time selecting a cemetery. 

If you're looking to learn more about cemeteries, read our guides on virtual cemeteries and movies about cemeteries.

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