What is the difference between a cemetery and a graveyard?

Cemeteries, graveyards and churchyards are all places where we bury people who have died. We’ll look into what defines a graveyard, a cemetery, and a churchyard and how they are different.

The main difference is that churchyards are attached to Christian churches. Cemeteries and graveyards might not be attached to a church.

What is a churchyard?

A churchyard is a green space next to or surrounding a church

Churchyards are always on church grounds. The Church of England considers them ‘consecrated land’. This means a Christian priest has blessed the land. Any land where a church has been is usually consecrated land too, even if the church is no longer there. 

For Christians, ‘consecrated land’ is sacred or holy land.

People buried in churchyards were often members of the church

Some people might choose a churchyard as their burial place because the church has a spiritual meaning for them. It can help some people feel:

  • Closer to God 

  • Closer to their family or community

  • In a safe and familiar place. 

They might feel that having a headstone in their local churchyard will help people to remember them after they die. 

You do not need to be a Christian to be buried in a churchyard

You might not feel you need or want a churchyard burial if you’re not a member of the church. But you have a right to be buried on church grounds if you are a ‘member of the parish’ when you die. 

This means you have a permanent address in the area, or you’re on the electoral roll in that area.

You can ask for a churchyard burial even if you’re not a member of the parish

If you’re not a church-goer or a member of the parish, you can still ask for a churchyard burial. You’d need to speak to the vicar or priest who leads the church. But because churchyard space is now very limited, it might not be possible.

If you’re asking for a churchyard burial, the church would usually perform an official Church of England burial. This means the vicar or priest would carry out a traditional Christian funeral service. But you can ask the church not to perform this if you are not religious, or follow a different religion.

Many churchyards are running out of space

Although you can be buried in a graveyard if you choose, the main problem is space. Many churches and their churchyards are very old and already full. This is why it can be quite difficult to ask for or reserve a burial plot in a churchyard. 

Many churches have a mix of religious and non-religious space

Lots of churches have had to extend their burial space. Often, they have consecrated land and non-consecrated land. You might prefer to be buried on non-consecrated land if you are not religious.

What is a cemetery?

A cemetery can be religious or non-religious

While, historically, there were contrasts between cemeteries and churchyards, the term "graveyard" can be used to describe all burial sites. However, today, the terms cemetery and graveyard are often used interchangeably.

The word ‘cemetery’ simply means a place where we bury people who have died. It comes from the Greek word ‘koimeterion’, which means ‘sleeping room’.

'Cemetery' is also a general term. We can use it to describe a graveyard, a secular (or non-religious) burial space, a military burial space, or even a woodland burial space. 

If you’re arranging a non-religious funeral, you’ll usually hear your funeral director talk about a cemetery, not a graveyard. 

Cemeteries often have more relaxed rules

Churchyards have rules about the kind of headstone (the stone that marks your grave) you can have. For example, they usually have to be either stone or granite. Any words you have on your headstone would need to be in line with Christian values. 

Cemeteries usually give you more choice in the material of your headstone and the words you choose to engrave on it. 

A memorial park is another kind of cemetery

Memorial parks are non-religious places. Each one is different, but most have plaques (engraved bronze markers on the ground) instead of headstones. In some woodland memorial parks, you can plant a tree to remember a person who’s died. They are usually very carefully landscaped and peaceful places. 

Some memorial parks have graves for burials, and some are just places for plaques, memorial trees, or other monuments. They can act as a meaningful place to visit for people whose friends or relatives have been cremated.

Some memorial parks are private, meaning you’d have to pay for a space. 

How to buy a burial plot

If you are making end of life arrangements, or need to buy a burial plot for someone else, this guide on how to buy a burial plot will help you get started.

Article reviewed