Snopes.com examines the meaning of the words "cemetery", "graveyard" and "church yard".
According to Snopes:
What are the Origins of These Words?
We reached out to a number of experts on burial grounds, particularly in western societies like the United States and Europe. Most experts pointed out to us that the distinctions between the two were in the etymology, and concrete differences emerged in the 18th and 19th century. Modern day usage of these terms is essentially synonymous, as seen in Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, which defines a graveyard as a “cemetery,” and a cemetery as a “burial ground.”
We learned that while “graveyard” is used as an all-encompassing term to describe burial sites, cemeteries have an additional history. Most experts and textbooks we referred to described the contrasts between churchyards and cemeteries, and not graveyards and cemeteries.
We spoke to David Sloane, a leading expert on commemoration, mourning and public spaces. Sloane, a professor in the Department of Urban Planning and Spatial Analysis in the Price School of Public Policy at the University of Southern California, told us “there is little or no difference between a graveyard and a cemetery. Either can be places next to a church (although most of those are called churchyards).”
This is true in present-day usage. But historically, that was not always the case.
Allison Meier, a culture writer who moonlights as a cemetery tour guide, wrote in Lapham’s Quarterly that, “Before the 19th century, death in the United States, like life, largely revolved around religion. Those who were part of a congregation were often buried in the churchyard or the crypts underneath the church.”
According to Thomas Laqueur, professor of history at the University of California, Berkeley, and author of “The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains,” the word “graveyard” was used generically during the late-18th century. All burial sites from the Middle Ages up until the late 19th century were essentially churchyards, or “the yard of a church,” which also meant they were controlled by church authorities. And early usage of the word “cemetery” corresponded with this practice, making it synonymous with a churchyard. According to “The Work of the Dead”:
Today, the difference between graveyards and cemeteries is non-existent. Historical differences existed between churchyards and cemeteries that gradually went away in modern day usage. The interment of ashes is also dependent on the rituals of the community the burial site is tied to. The information in the above meme is misleading and incorrect, which goes to show that some claims should just remain buried.
[…] the word “cemetery,” when it first appeared in English in 1485, was a synonym for “churchyard” […] And when, nearly a century earlier in 1387, “cemetery” appeared as a synonym for catacomb, it only just bypassed “churchyard” by taking on its pagan-inflected archaic equivalent, “chirchehawe” […]
When in 1656 a lexicographer first actually defined “cemetery,” he takes us back to where we started: “a churchyard.” “Churchyard” itself was too easy a word to merit definition; dictionaries in the early days concentrated on hard words. “Cemetery,” by contrast, was a hard word with a long convoluted history. It comes from the Greek koimhthrion and its Latin cognate coemeterium, and originally meant a sleeping place, a dormitory.
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