All cemeteries serve the same general purpose. However, many different types of cemeteries exist throughout the United States and the world.
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This blog post will introduce you to some of the most noteworthy examples. Learning about these differences will help you more thoroughly understand how different cultures, families, and individuals treat the process of putting deceased people to rest.
Main Types of Cemeteries in the United States
Take a look at the different types of major cemeteries you may find in the U.S.
1. Public or private cemeteries
Before exploring more unique examples, you may first want to learn about the basic differences between a public and private cemetery.
A local government funds and maintains a public cemetery. On the other hand, as the name implies, a private entity, company, or organization will own and manage a private cemetery.
Neither option is “better” than the other. Each offers its own advantages. For instance, burying someone in a public cemetery usually costs less. On the other hand, a private cemetery will often offer more options and amenities/services.
2. Green cemetery
Green cemeteries have become increasingly widespread as more and more people have begun to recognize the importance of limiting their carbon footprints.
Green cemeteries offer a relatively new option compared to many other types of cemeteries. You might confuse "green" cemeteries with "natural" cemeteries.
Natural cemeteries may offer the same benefits without an official certification. In general, green cemeteries allow people to bury loved ones with minimal environmental impact. For example, a green burial may include a biodegradable casket or urn.
3. VA cemeteries
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs manages cemeteries specifically for veterans and those who died while still active members of the armed forces. In some instances, the close loved ones of a veteran may also qualify for burial in a VA cemetery.
4. Religious cemeteries
Some religious organizations run their own cemeteries. Naturally, those who qualify for burial in such cemeteries usually must have been active followers of the applicable religion, but this isn’t always the case. Different religious organizations enforce different restrictions.
5. Urban cemeteries
Many urban cemeteries with high population density have minimal open space and insufficient space to bury the dead. Some urban cemeteries address this problem by burying people in layers on top of each other.
6. Monumental cemeteries
A monumental cemetery may be what most Americans picture when they think of a cemetery or graveyard. These types of cemeteries consist of tombstones and similar monuments marking the burial sites of the dead. To serve those who can’t afford expensive funerals, these cemeteries may also have sections for flat grave markers.
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7. Family cemeteries
Family cemeteries aren’t nearly as common in the U.S. as they once were ages ago. However, in rare instances, some people still choose to bury loved ones in family cemeteries.
Family cemeteries involve family-owned burial grounds for the various generations of a specific family. These days, they tend to be a luxury. In the past, they functioned as a practical response to a common problem.
When early American settlers started new towns, cemeteries were not yet established so they would set aside some of their own land for burying their family members.
A family plot may now serve as a more common modern alternative to a family cemetery. This is a section of a cemetery reserved for a specific family.
(Tip: Check our guide on how to buy a cemetery plot in advance for more information on this topic.)
8. Columbarium walls
A columbarium wall may not technically qualify as a type of cemetery but may include a feature of a cemetery.
Cremation offers an increasingly popular means of disposing of a dead person’s remains. After cremating a loved one, some families choose to keep their deceased loved one's remains in an urn in their homes. They may also scatter their ashes.
Family members may also elect to store an urn in a columbarium. A columbarium is a small nook or indent in a wall with space for an urn. Sometimes, cemeteries feature or consist of large walls filled with these nooks.
9. Memorial parks
A memorial park offers another popular alternative to a monumental cemetery for various reasons.
Maintaining the numerous monuments and headstones that can accumulate in a monumental cemetery can bring challenges. Some people feel that over time, when different styles of monuments end up cramped together in one small space, a monumental cemetery can become unsightly.
Such people often choose to bury loved ones in memorial parks instead. A memorial park substitutes lawn-level memorials in place of larger monuments. This allows the grounds to more closely resemble a scenic park. It also reduces maintenance needs, which can, in turn, reduce costs.
10. Garden cemeteries
Like memorial parks, garden cemeteries exist (at least in part) to preserve a cemetery’s aesthetic value. Although the look of a garden cemetery can vary on a case-by-case basis, in general, garden cemetery designers strive to incorporate the natural features of a garden seamlessly into the burial grounds.
You may assume a graveyard is the same as a general cemetery. Many people use the words interchangeably now.
However, a graveyard is actually its own type of cemetery. Graveyards are usually relatively small and part of a church or similar property.
12. Prison cemeteries
The way prisons handle inmate deaths varies depending on a range of factors and circumstances. Some prisons have cemeteries for inmates who die behind bars with no funds for a traditional burial.
Like columbarium walls, mausoleums may be independent “cemeteries,” but are often parts of larger cemeteries in general. A mausoleum is usually a relatively small (though not always!) building with spaces for storing the dead in the walls. Like a family plot, a family can set aside a mausoleum or a section of one just for their family members.
14. Urn cemeteries
Although some traditional cemeteries simply have spaces set aside for burying someone’s urn or cremains, some cemeteries exclusively serve this purpose.
Main Types of Cemeteries Elsewhere
Many of the most common types of cemeteries in the U.S. are also common in other parts of the world. A few unique types of cemeteries that have yet to catch on outside of a few countries include the following types we list below.
15. Terraced cemeteries
Terraced cemeteries aren’t necessarily unheard of in the U.S. However, they’re far more common in countries and regions where lack of space has made them a necessity.
Consider Hong Kong’s terraced cemeteries. Because Hong Kong doesn’t have enough land to allow for many traditional cemeteries, cemetery designers have carved tiers into areas of the nearby mountainsides, optimizing them for burial space.
16. Apartment-style cemeteries
This type of cemetery has become increasingly common in parts of the world where space for traditional cemeteries is limited.
From the outside, these types of cemeteries often resemble typical apartment buildings. Inside, however, they consist of several stories of slots or small rooms to house the dead.
These new cemeteries are also more common in areas where both lack of space and religious or cultural influences play a role in how people choose to put the dead to rest. For example, these cemeteries have become somewhat popular in Israel because cremation is taboo in the Jewish faith.
Although catacombs aren’t in wide use anymore, catacombs from previous ages still exist throughout the world. Catacombs are underground cemeteries that can span for miles.
As with many of the examples on this list, they often served a practical purpose. For instance, by the 17th century, Paris’ cemeteries were nearly overflowing with the buried dead.
Along with taking up limited space, the corpses were crowding so much that this practice often resulted in unpleasant odors and health risks. To solve the problem, Parisians began entombing the dead in the catacombs beneath the city.
It’s worth noting that the U.S. has catacombs. For example, a much smaller underground burial chamber exists beneath St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral in New York City but hasn't been common in the U.S.
Types of Cemeteries: What They Tell Us
While various cemeteries have many differences, all of them can tell us a little something about the many ways people have regarded and approached death over the years.
- Brown, Evan Nicole. “Inside the high-rise graveyards of Hong Kong.” Fast Company, Mansueto Ventures, 9 April 2019, www.fastcompany.com/90398412/the-high-rise-graveyards-of-hong-kong-in-photos
- “Eligibility for burial in a VA national cemetery.” VA.gov, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, www.va.gov/burials-memorials/eligibility/
- “FAQs: Green Burial Defined.” Green Burial Council, Green Burial Council, www.greenburialcouncil.org/green_burial_defined.html
- Geiling, Natasha. “Beneath Paris’ City Streets, There’s an Empire of Death Waiting for Tourists.” Smithsonian Magazine, The Smithsonian Institute, 28 March 2014, www.smithsonianmag.com/travel/paris-catacombs-180950160/
- Gorvett, Zaria. “The buildings designed to house the dead.” BBC Future, BBC, 28 November 2017, www.bbc.com/future/article/20171127-the-buildings-designed-to-house-the-dead
- Sheets, Connor. “Death behind bars: Buried in Alabama's prison cemeteries, life sentences last beyond death.” Alabama.com, Advance Local Media LLC, 5 March 2019, www.al.com/news/2017/08/death_behind_bars_an_inside_lo.html
- “Types of Cemeteries.” Cemetery.com, Cemetery.com, LLC, www.cemetery.com/learning-center/guide-to-cemeteries-and-burial/types-of-cemeteries/