The Difference Between a Graveyard and a Cemetery

What’s the Difference Between a Graveyard and a Cemetery?

Some people think graveyard and cemetery mean the same, but a graveyard is a type of cemetery, and a cemetery is usually not a graveyard. Although the words graveyard and cemetery are often used in the same context in everyday speech, there is a subtle difference between the two terms.

To understand the difference between a graveyard and a cemetery, we need to go back in time. From about the 7th century onwards, the process of burial was very much the responsibility of the Church, and burying the dead was only permitted on land near a church, which was known as the churchyard. The part of the churchyard used for burial was called the graveyard, as it was quite literally a yard with graves in it.

A Typical English Graveyard

As the population of Europe grew, the capacity of graveyards was reached and by the beginning of the 19th century, the unsustainability of church burials had become apparent, so completely new places for burying people, independent of the graveyards, appeared, and these were called cemeteries.

Where did the word cemetery come from? It actually comes from the old French word cimetiere, which translates oddly enough as graveyard. The French word originally comes from the Greek word koimeterion, which means “a sleeping place”.

A Typical English Cemetery
A Typical English Cemetery

So, broadly speaking, graveyards are on land owned by the church, and are typically attached to a church or a chapel. The Christian Church would usually stipulate that only Christians could be buried within the grounds and local nobles and the wealthy were sometimes buried in crypts beneath the church itself. Cemeteries, on the other hand are generally run by private companies or the council and are normally open to all faiths and have more relaxed rules regarding headstones.

Another subtle difference between a graveyard and a cemetery is that people’s bodies are buried in graveyards; whereas in a cemetery, it is possible to bury an individual’s ashes as well.