Aren’t cemeteries and churchyards the same thing?

It is important to distinguish between different types of burial space in the UK. For a definitional framework please view the burial typology

Cemeteries can and should be distinguished from churchyards. Churchyards, traditionally, are places of burial connected to churches either physically or through their ownership by the Church of England. Their use has been recorded since the eighth century. It is useful to think of cemeteries as a more recent ‘invention’ of the eighteenth century, where ownership tends to be secular.

Cemeteries and churchyards operate under different kinds of legislation. Churchyards are consecrated tracts of land subject to Church or Canon law. Certain types of activity within a churchyard – such as reserving burial space or removing headstones – require ‘permission’ or faculty. Cemeteries may contain consecrated sections, which are also subject to Church law. However, for the most part cemeteries are managed under civic legislation. 

Scotland’s history of burial is not the same as in England, and a separate set of laws relates to kirkyard ownership and management. There are also some differences in Wales with regard to churchyard ownership.

It is possible to argue that, in material terms, churchyards and cemeteries constitute two different kinds of burial space. Churchyards are generally small in extent, and perhaps cover no more than a couple of acres (0.8 hectares). Cemeteries are often laid out on a bigger scale: the largest are over 100 acres in size (40 hectares), although in rural areas cemeteries might be smaller than the larger churchyards and this can create confusion. Further, some cemeteries might contain chapels for conducting burial services and these may look like parish churches, and some churchyards might be located some distance from a church and contain no buildings at all. 

All Saints Churchyard, Ripley [CRG]

Historically, status could be attached to the location of burial within a churchyard, but for the most part its internal landscape lacks intentional design. By contrast, cemeteries – large tracts of land located on the outskirts of settlement, initially – came into common use from the 1820s and often designated higher-status burial areas at major junctions and next to internal roads and pathways. Cemeteries are almost always owned by statutory authorities including parish and town councils, district councils and unitary authorities. 

Some sites sit at the ‘boundary’ between churchyard and cemetery. For example, in many rural areas, earlier generations may have extended an ancient churchyard to accommodate burials, but in more recent years used civic legislation to add a ‘cemetery’ to the extended churchyard. No obvious distinction may be evident on viewing the site, but part will be managed by the Parochial Church Council, and part by the Parish Council.

In the UK we continue to use burial space in both cemeteries and churchyards. Public health concerns in the nineteenth century led to the closure of many churchyards that were centrally located in towns and cities. However, Victorian investment in church building meant that new churchyards were often laid out towards a city’s periphery at the same time that new cemeteries were being developed. Furthermore, many churchyards were extended when space was required. In rural locations, smaller villages are often still reliant on churchyard space.

Further reading:

Rugg, J. (2000) ‘Defining the place of burial: what makes a cemetery a cemetery?’, Mortality, 5, 259-75.

Rugg, J. (2014) Churchyard and Cemetery: Tradition and Modernity in Rural North Yorkshire, Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Rugg, J., Stirling, F. and Clayden, A. (2013) ‘Churchyard and cemetery in an English industrial city: Sheffield, 1740-1900’, Urban History, 41:4, 627-646.