What do you think of when you hear the word cemetery? Is it different than what you picture when you hear the word graveyard? Today these words are used interchangeably to describe a place where we bury our dead, but a cemetery and graveyard are not really the same thing.
When you hear the word graveyard, you might picture traditionally shaped gravestones, overgrown with ivy, that are just barely visible through a mist. That’s what I picture anyway. I can thank TV and movies for that imagery.
The term graveyard was first recorded in 1765-75 and is quite literally, a yard filled with graves, attached to a small rural church.1 As defined, graveyards are small and located directly next to a church, usually with not a lot of property room to expand. You might also hear them called churchyards, burial grounds, or burying grounds. Usually, only those members or parishioners of that specific church are allowed burial in its churchyard. Very rarely were exceptions made.
I have visited a few graveyards over the years. In my experience, they are generally well-kept and maintained. I have yet to find one like the movie version I described above. The ones I have visited were bright, usually sitting next to a little white chapel with stained glass. I have rarely been able to visit inside the churches at these graveyards, but there is the odd time that you will find the door unlocked.
A cemetery is defined as an area set apart specifically for graves, that is not adjacent to a church. It is interesting to note that the term cemetery was first recorded in 1375-1425, and is Greek for “a sleeping place”.2 This is a reference you might come across often in a cemetery. I have come across many epitaphs that read along the lines of “He is not dead, but sleepeth”. Both religious and non-religious people are buried in cemeteries. Cemeteries are often quite large, and can sometimes contain sections for different religions and denominations. There are such things as public or community cemeteries, and also religious-specific cemeteries, not connected to any particular church. These are often found on the outskirts of cities and towns, but more and more are now within city limits due to urban sprawl.
At this point, I have visited more cemeteries than graveyards as they are much more common in my area. They are often so large that I will visit them multiple times to photograph them a section at a time, like Lasalle Cemetery. The largest cemetery I have ever visited is Greenwood Cemetery in Sault Ste Marie. That cemetery is so large it crosses two streets! I only had a chance to visit a small portion of it, but I hope to go back in a year or two.
The terms cemetery and graveyard will continue to be used interchangeably, and you will always be understood regardless of which term you use. But now you can be a little bit more specific when talking about a cemetery or graveyard, or you can pull out this little tidbit of information if the need ever arises.
Thanks for reading!