Home > Help > What is the Difference Between a Cemetery and a Graveyard?

Search Death Records (United States)


What is the Difference Between a Cemetery and a Graveyard?

By Steve Johnson
May 11, 2023

For all intents and purposes, there is no difference. Both terms are used in the United States synonymously. However, the term "cemetery" is the more modern word, dating back the early 1800s, whereas "graveyard" dates back to the Colonial era, as far back as the early 1600s.

Why We Use the Word Cemetery Today

Going back to the early 1600s, it was common in Colonial times to use the words "graveyard" and "burying ground" to identify any place of interment. Families either buried their dead on their own farms, or they buried them in plots surrounding a church or meeting house. The term "churchyard" had also been used in the Colonies, but was more frequently used in England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland.

However, graveyards and burying grounds during the Colonial era often appeared spooky, where plots were packed in tight together, with skulls carved into tombstones. These grounds were often located next to a church or meeting house where there were crowds of people gathering for various events.

Moreover, these grounds often went unmanaged for weeks or months at a time, allowing weeds to spring up, cattle and sheep to wander through, and mud to permeate in wet weather.

The word "cemetery" was first used when Mt. Auburn Cemetery was established in 1831 in Cambridge, MA. The founders were inspired by Père-Lachaise Cemetery (Cimetière du Père-Lachaise) in Paris, France. Père-Lachaise was established in 1804 by Napoleon Bonaparte to resemble a garden park where citizens could enjoy the scenery while honoring their dead.

The French word "cimetière" comes from the Greek word "koimeterion", which means "a sleeping place". The Greeks believed that the dead were not gone, but only asleep in their tombs. The word was later adopted by the Romans, who used it to refer to their own catacombs.

The founders of Mt. Auburn Cemetery were impressed with the "garden concept" that Père-Lachaise created. They hired landscape designers to make use of indigenous trees, shrubs, flowers, as well as fountains, walkways, and other buildings to create a dreamy, fantasy setting that might suggest what Heaven could look like. Surviving family members could visit, have a picnic, take a walk, observe wildlife, or find inspiration for an idea.

The founders of Mt. Auburn also chose to use the English adaption of the word "cimetière", instead of using the common "graveyard" or "burying ground" that had been the practice in the United States. By calling Mt. Auburn a "cemetery" founders hoped that they could differentiate themselves and sell more plots at higher prices.

mt auburn cemetery, cambridge, ma

Mt. Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, MA

The Cultural Impact of Mt. Auburn Cemetery Across the United States

When Mt. Auburn Cemetery opened its gates in 1831, it became a media sensation that rivaled the likes of Disneyland's opening in 1955. It was covered in every newspaper across the country. People from all over New England and the Eastern seaboard traveled to Cambridge, MA with the intent of visiting Mt. Auburn Cemetery as a vacation destination. The town of Cambridge along with the greater Boston area saw substantial increases in tourism dollars.

That economic boom became the envy of other cities across the United States, and the "garden park" cemetery concept was soon replicated everywhere. The Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, NY, the Bonaventure Cemetery in Savannah, GA, Albany Rural Cemetery in Albany, NY, Woodland Cemetery in Dayton, OH, and Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia, PA, were all built to recreate the same tourist success that Mt. Auburn enjoyed.

In the decades following Mt. Auburn's opening, every city both large and small began duplicating the same "garden park" concept in their area.

The word "cemetery" became the predominant word that replaced "graveyard" and "burying ground". Even churches in the United States began calling their churchyards as "cemeteries". Even family farms began referring to their burying grounds as "family cemeteries".

Eventually, the idea that a cemetery should be designed to look like a park, where surviving family members can gather to enjoy tranquil sights, became the accepted norm in American culture.

Why Do We Still Use the Word Graveyard Today?

The word "graveyard" today is generally used to describe a cemetery that looks spooky. It's now thought of as a cemetery that is old, unsightly, frightening, or has been abandoned.

Meanwhile, the word "cemetery" is generally used for those that are still actively maintained and well-cared for.

The popular notion that "graveyards" are old and small, and "cemeteries" are large and new, is not true at all. Both words mean exactly the same thing. It's just that "graveyard" is used in a more negative context, while "cemetery" is used in the more positive.

What About the Term, "Memorial Park"?

The term "memorial park" is actually an extension to the "lawn cemetery" concept that started in the late 1800s.

The "lawn cemetery" idea came about after the invention of the "push lawnmower" in 1870. Prior to that, cemeteries were largely decorated with trees, shrubs, walkways, benches, and buildings, with staff meticulously pulling weeds by hand, trimming trees by hand, and raking leaves by hand.

The invention of the lawn mower allowed cemeteries to instead rely more heavily on grass lawns. Graves were spaced apart just enough to allow a push lawnmower to get through. Now with fewer trees and shrubs, there was less need for laborious trimming, leaf raking, and the lawnmower could just mow over weeds.

The "lawn cemetery" concept quickly spread across the United States as a cost-cutting measure, while still allowing some room for decorative trees, shrubs, benches and walkways.

The "memorial park" moniker came about in 1913 when Forest Lawn Memorial Park opened up in Glendale, CA. The company took the lawn cemetery concept but replaced the word "cemetery" with something that sounded more pastoral, and less associated with death.

Forest Lawn made use of "ground flush" markers instead of upright tombstones so that the lawnmower could just run directly over the grave itself and allow for faster, easier grass cutting. The end result was a cemetery that removed all visible vestiges of death, including the word "cemetery" itself.

Are Memorial Parks Different From Cemeteries?

Technically, a memorial park is a type of cemetery. However today, the lines have been erased. There are now cemeteries that market themselves as "memorial parks" and yet still have upright tombstones with trees and shrubs interspersed between. There are now memorial parks that use the word "cemetery" in their name yet are restricted to ground-flush markers and make heavy use of lawns.

There is no hard, fast rule over what should be properly called a "cemetery" versus a "memorial park".

If anything, the memorial park is generally thought of as something much more modern.

Green Cemeteries and Natural Burial Parks

Moving into the future, "green cemeteries", "natural burial parks", and "eco-friendly cemeteries" are quickly gaining popularity. These all refer to the same thing... a cemetery with generally no tombstones, where trees and plants are allowed to grow naturally in their native setting.

Life Forest in Hillsborough, NH is an example.

It effectively takes bodily disposition back to the beginning again. In this case, human remains are buried in the ground, without any kind of tombstone or marker, and Mother Nature herself is allowed to take over. The remains are consumed by trees, plants, bugs, and worms, feeding the Earth's ecosystem and completing the "Circle of Life".

These cemeteries give surviving family members GPS coordinates to find their loved-one's burial location. A "memorial tree" is often planted on top of the remains.

Cremations are also supported with a special section to dump ashes, or allowing family members to spread ashes anywhere they'd like.

cemetery records

A free online library of cemetery records from thousands of cemeteries across the world, for historical and genealogy research.

Clear Digital Media, Inc.

What makes us Different?

Single-sourced, not crowd-sourced

Each transcription we publish comes from a single-source, be it the cemetery office, government office, church office, archived document, a tombstone transcriber. Other websites already do an excellent job of crowd-sourcing a single cemetery together. But genealogists also need to see the original records from a single source. That's what we offer.