AskDefine | Define cemeteries

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  1. Plural of cemetery

Extensive Definition

A cemetery is a place in which dead bodies and cremated remains are buried. The term cemetery (from Greek κοιμητήριον: sleeping place) implies that the land is specifically designated as a burying ground. Cemeteries in the Western world are the place where the final ceremonies of death are observed. These ceremonies or rites differ according to cultural practice and religious belief.


In the Scots language or Northern English language a churchyard can also be known as a kirkyaird. However, it should be noted that a churchyard can also be any patch of land on church grounds, even without a place of burial. Graveyards are almost always still owned by the place of worship that they are situated next to. The use of graveyards for burial of the dead was largely discontinued from the 19th century onwards as they were replaced by cemeteries.


Prehistoric cemeteries are referred to by the more neutral term grave field. They are one of the chief sources of information on prehistoric cultures, and numerous archaeological cultures are defined by their burial customs, such as the Urnfield culture of the European Bronze Age.

Early Christian history

From about the 7th century, European burial was under the control of the church and could only take place on consecrated church ground. Practices varied, but in continental Europe, bodies were usually buried in a mass grave until they had decomposed. The bones were then exhumed and stored in ossuaries, either along the arcaded bounding walls of the cemetery, or within the church under floor slabs and behind walls.
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 others were buried in graveyards 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.

Graveyards replaced by cemeteries

Various conditions in the late 18th century and throughout the 19th century led 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.

Modern use and styles

The earliest of the spacious landscaped-style cemeteries is Père Lachaise in Paris. This embodied the idea of state- rather than church-controlled burial – a concept that spread through Europe with the Napoleonic invasions, and sometimes became adapted leading to the opening of cemeteries by private companies. The shift to municipal cemeteries or those established by private companies was usually accompanied by the establishing of spacious, landscaped, burial grounds outside of the city limits.
Cemeteries are usually a respected or protected area, and often include a crematorium for the cremation of the dead. The violation of the graves or buildings is usually considered a very serious crime, and punishments are often severe.
The style of cemeteries varies greatly internationally. For example, in the United States and many European countries, modern cemeteries usually have many tombstones placed on open spaces. In Russia, tombstones are usually placed in small fenced family lots. (This was once common practice in American cemeteries as well, and such fenced family plots are still visible in some older American cemeteries.)
Cemeteries in cities use valuable urban space, which could become a problem, especially in older cities. As historic cemeteries begin to reach their capacity for full burials, alternative memorialization, such as collective memorials for cremated individuals, is becoming more common. Different cultures have different attitudes to destruction of cemeteries and use of the land for construction. In some countries it is considered normal to destroy the graves, while in others the graves are traditionally respected for a century or more. In many cases, after a suitable period of time has elapsed, the headstones are removed and the now former cemetery is converted to a recreational park or construction site. A more recent trend, particularly in South American cities, involves constructing high-rise buildings to house graves.
Religious beliefs tend to dictate how cemeteries are viewed by the public. In the United States, Christian cemeteries are more often viewed as parkland, where family gatherings—albeit not boisterous ones—are held. Jewish cemeteries, by stark contrast, are regarded with the utmost respect and, for the most part, are personal matters rather than social.

Family cemeteries

While uncommon today, family (or private) cemeteries were a matter of practicality during the settlement of America. If a municipal or religious cemetery had not been established, settlers would seek out a small plot of land, often in wooded areas bordering their fields, to begin a family plot. Sometimes, several families would arrange to bury their dead together. While some of these sites later grew into true cemeteries, many were forgotten after a family moved away or died out. Today, it is not unheard of to discover groupings of tombstones, ranging from a few to a dozen or more, on undeveloped land. As late twentieth century suburban sprawl pressured the pace of development in formerly rural areas, it became increasingly common for larger exurban properties to be encumbered by "religious easements," which are legal requirements for the property owner to permit periodic maintenance of small burial plots located on the property but technically not owned with it. Often, cemeteries are relocated to accommodate building. However, if the cemetery is not relocated, descendants of people buried there may visit the cemetery.
More recent is the practice of families with large estates choosing to create private cemeteries in the form of burial sites, monuments, crypts, or mausoleums on their property; the mausoleum at Fallingwater is an example of this practice. Burial of a body at a site may protect the location from redevelopment, with such estates often being placed in the care of a trust or foundation. Presently, state regulations have made it increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to start private cemeteries; many require a plan to care for the site in perpetuity. Private cemeteries are nearly always forbidden on incorporated residential zones. Notwithstanding, many people will bury a beloved pet on the family property, knowing fully that this violates local health code.


In American cemeteries flowers are common gifts brought to dead loved ones. They are brought during major holidays and birthdays. Privately owned cemeteries will often throw away these flowers after a few weeks in order to keep the space maintained.

Cemeteries for pets

The Cimetière des Chiens in Asnières-sur-Seine in Paris is an elaborate pet cemetery believed to be the first zoological necropolis in the world.

Cemeteries and superstition

In many countries, cemeteries are objects of superstition and legend; they are sometimes used (usually at night-time) for black magic ceremonies or similar clandestine happenings. In Haiti the traditional belief regarding zombies as practiced under Vodou religion is connected with burial rituals. It is believed that the zombified individual is buried alive in a coffin in a shallow grave after being poisoned with a mixture containing tetrodotoxin from the puffer fish to slow his heart so he appears dead even to medical practitioners. At night, after all the burial ceremonies have been completed, a clandestine operation to dig up and take the zombified individual into slavery is undertaken by followers of the Vodou priest. This legend of zombies, as investigated by Wade Davis in The Serpent and the Rainbow, is exceptional among cemetery myths. Little conclusive evidence has been found for vampires or other supernatural cemetery-dwellers.

Cemetery preservation

South Asia

The British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia, BACSA, was set up in 1976 to care for, and to record, European cemeteries wherever the British East India Company set foot. It is estimated that some two million European men, women and children are buried in the Indian subcontinent alone.

Other common types of burial places

Removal of remains from cemeteries

Businesses and professions for cemeteries

Public holidays and traditions in relation to cemeteries

Other topics related to places of burial


  • Colvin, Howard. Architecture and the After-Life. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991.
  • Curl, James Stevens. Death and Architecture. Gloucestershire: Sutton, 2002.
  • Etlin, Richard A. The Architecture of Death: the transformation of the cemetery in eighteenth-century Paris. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1984.
  • Grossman, Janet Burnett. Greek Funerary Sculpture. Catalogue of the Collection at the Getty Villa. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2001.
  • Salisbury, Mike. From My Death May Life Come Forth. A Feasibility Study of the Woodland Cemetery in Canada Earthartist
  • Worpole, Ken. Last Landscapes: the architecture of the cemetery in the West, Reaktion Books, London, 2003

External links

cemeteries in Arabic: مقبرة
cemeteries in Bosnian: Groblje
cemeteries in Bulgarian: Гробище
cemeteries in Catalan: Cementiri
cemeteries in Czech: Hřbitov
cemeteries in Danish: Kirkegård
cemeteries in German: Friedhof
cemeteries in Modern Greek (1453-): Νεκροταφείο
cemeteries in Spanish: Cementerio
cemeteries in Esperanto: Tombejo
cemeteries in French: Cimetière
cemeteries in Croatian: Groblje
cemeteries in Indonesian: Pemakaman
cemeteries in Italian: Cimitero
cemeteries in Hebrew: בית קברות
cemeteries in Latin: Coemeterium
cemeteries in Luxembourgish: Kierfecht
cemeteries in Lithuanian: Kapinės
cemeteries in Hungarian: Temető
cemeteries in Dutch: Begraafplaats
cemeteries in Dutch Low Saxon: Begreefplak
cemeteries in Japanese: 墓地
cemeteries in Norwegian: Gravlund
cemeteries in Norwegian Nynorsk: Kyrkjegard
cemeteries in Narom: Chimetyire
cemeteries in Polish: Cmentarz
cemeteries in Portuguese: Cemitério
cemeteries in Quechua: Ayamarka
cemeteries in Russian: Кладбище
cemeteries in Simple English: Cemetery
cemeteries in Slovak: Cintorín
cemeteries in Serbian: Гробље
cemeteries in Finnish: Hautausmaa
cemeteries in Swedish: Begravningsplats
cemeteries in Turkish: Mezarlık
cemeteries in Ukrainian: Цвинтар
cemeteries in Walloon: Aite
cemeteries in Yiddish: בית החיים
cemeteries in Chinese: 墓葬建筑
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