AskDefine | Define graveyard

Dictionary Definition

graveyard n : a tract of land used for burials [syn: cemetery, burial site, burial ground, burying ground, memorial park, necropolis]

User Contributed Dictionary



  1. A tract of land used for burials of the dead.
  2. By extension, a final resting place for a collection of things that are no longer useful or useable.

Derived terms


Extensive Definition

A graveyard is any place set aside for long-term burial of the dead, with or without monuments such as headstones. It may, or may not, be located near and administered by a church.
Since the mid-1800s, the term cemetery has become a more popular label for most burying grounds.

Origins and class distinctions

Graveyards were usually established at the same time as the building of the relevant place of worship (which can date back to the 8th to 14th centuries) and were often used by those families who could not afford to be buried inside or beneath the place of worship itself. In most cultures those who were vastly rich, had important professions, were part of the nobility or were of any other high social status were usually buried in individual crypts inside or beneath the relevant place of worship with an indication of the name of the deceased, date of death and other biographical data. In Europe this was often accompanied with a depiction of their family coat of arms.
Most of middle or low social status others were buried in graveyards around the relevant church again divided by social status. Families of the deceased who could afford the work of a stonemason had a headstone carved and set up over the place of burial with an indication of the name of the deceased, date of death and sometimes other biographical data. Usually, the more writing and symbols carved on the headstone, the more expensive it was. As with most other human property such as houses and means of transport, richer families used to compete for the artistic value of their family headstone in comparison to others around it, sometimes adding a statue (such as a weeping angel) on the top of the grave.
Those who could not pay for a headstone at all usually had some religious symbol made from wood on the place of burial such as a Christian cross, however this would quickly deteriorate under the rain or snow. Some families hired a blacksmith and had large crosses made from various metals put on the place of burial.

Permission for burial

Not everyone could be buried in a local graveyard. Usually one of the following conditions had to met to obtain permission for burial:
  • The deceased had to have been resident in the parish of the relevant place of worship attached to the graveyard, and have attended religious services as a member of the congregation.
  • If the deceased person had been resident outside the parish or unexpectantlty died elsewhere, then his or her remains could be only buried in the graveyard if he had been a member of the parish and congregation in the past.
  • If the deceased was not a resident in the parish and never a member of the congregation, then his or her remains could be only buried in the graveyard if but had a close family relative interned in the graveyard and was to be placed inside the same tomb.
  • If the deceased was not a resident in the parish, never a member of the congregation and had no close relatives buried in the graveyard, but transport of the remains back to his original parish or place or residence were not possible (out of financial or practical reasons) then permission for burial could be granted.
  • If the relevant parish or place of residence of the deceased could not be determined, permission for burial could be granted.

Graveyards replaced by cemeteries

Various conditions in the late 18th century and throughout the 19th century lead to the burial of the dead in graveyards being discontinued. Among the reasons for this were:
  • Limits to, and lack of, space in graveyards for new headstones and dead bodies.
As a consequence of these reasons, city authorities, national governments and places of worship all changed their regulations for burials. In many European states, burial in graveyards was outlawed altogether either by royal decrees or government legislation.
In some cases, skeletons were exhumed from graveyards and moved into ossuaries or catacombs. A large action of this type occurred in 18th century Paris when human remains were transferred from graveyards all over the city to the Catacombs of Paris.
However in most places across Europe completely new places of burial were established away from heavily populated areas and outside of old towns and city centers. Many new cemeteries became municipally-owned, and thus independent from churches and their churchyards, however even these were still segregated by the faith of the deceased to be buried there.
Thus cemeteries (certainly in their modern landscaped or garden cemetery form), rather than graveyards, became the principal place of burial for the deceased and continue to this day.

Burial in graveyards after the 19th century

Even as far as the 20th century, permission was granted to many small towns and villages to continue using their local graveyards for burials. Many of these places had very small populations with few deaths every year, and had a much better record of public hygiene. Therefore they did not require the establishment of a new burial ground.

Present status

Thousands of graveyards still stand across the world today and are usually the place where the oldest graves of a community or part of a city can be found.
However, many churches, most notably in the United Kingdom, have sold their churchyards in part or in whole, with or without a graveyard still situated on it. Also in many cases in the late 19th and 20th centuries, churches were forced to sell large portions of their churchyard in order for a road to be built or expanded. The loss of part (or all) of the churchyard, often also led to the removal and permanent loss of century-old graves and headstones. In some cases the human remains were exhumed and the gravestones transferred.
In other cases, the churches themselves removed the headstones in the graveyards, to recreate a park-like environment on the churchyard or simply to facilitate the seasonal cutting and removal of grass or weeds.
A very small number of graveyards across the world are still being used for burials today.

Famous graveyards


See also

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