Graveyard vs Cemetery

Driving down backroads from the Jordan Lake Christmas Tree Farm, we passed a white clapboard church with a gravel parking lot and a graveyard. On my thematic purity rating for backroad country churches, it rated a 9 out of 10. (Points are deducted for paved parking lots, brick churches, and modern architecture.)

But the sight made me wonder: what’s the difference between a graveyard and a cemetery?

We learn from Jakub Marian that for centuries, burials were the province of the church; thus, part of the church property was dedicated to yards with graves. Graveyards are therefore associated with churches.

But as the population grew, the need for burial sites exceeded the churches’ capacity. Towns and cities established much larger, standalone burial sites separate from churches and called them cemeteries.

So, as Marian says, a “graveyard is a type of cemetery, but a cemetery is usually not a graveyard.“

Cemetery is the older word, a Latinate form of the Greek koimētērion “dormitory,” from koiman “put to sleep.” According to Marian, graveyard is a later word that derives from the “Proto-Germanic *graban, meaning ‘to dig,’ and it is related to ‘groove’ but not to ‘gravel.’”

There is something satisfyingly heavy, sonorous, and Anglo-Saxon about the plainer “graveyard” — with overtones of solemnity (“a grave aspect”), the long and short “a” sounds bridged by that vibrating “v”, the hard ending of that “d.” The word’s sound and its image are well-matched. Cemetery is almost too pretty a word for what it describes.

[We recently toured the nearby Maplewood Cemetery, courtesy of Preservation Durham. Three large city-sized blocks of burial sites, mausoleums, funeral urns, and the like; you see the history of Durham’s street names in the headstones. When the cemetery was established, it was on the outskirts of a small town; now, a growing city surrounds it with apartments, subdivisions, commerce, churches, and a bit of Duke Forest. A portion of each block was set aside for a Potter’s Field, and — it perhaps goes without saying — the rich and well-to-do’s plots are always on higher ground.]