Types of Cemeteries

Are you a genealogist or a social historian? Do you like spending time in cemeteries, looking at the headstone artwork or searching for dead ancestors? Then, it might help to learn a bit more about the types of cemeteries you may encounter. According to Silent Cities: The Evolution of the American Cemetery, cemeteries have eight different classifications:

  1. Church Graveyard: This type of cemetery represents this country’s first formal cemetery. This tradition was carried from Europe, especially the habit of burying the elite under a church stone floor or in the church burial yard, which usually was adjacent to the church. When the smell from decaying bodies became too pungent, the town cemetery was born. Usually, property on the outskirts of a town was selected for that town burial area. Grave placement in church cemeteries and early town graveyards often were haphazard.
  2. Family Burial Plots: Often called “family cemeteries,” family members, spouses who married into the family and even friends were buried in plots in these graveyards. Plantation living in the south made this type of graveyard typical, as it often was impractical to carry a body into a town for a church or town burial. Most often, the plots in these family cemeteries were placed on a high point on the property.
  3. Country Cemetery: You’ll see these cemeteries as you drive along highways (not Interstates) in America. Sometimes these cemeteries sit on the edge of a town, sometimes they are within a mile or two of town and they usually sit on a hill to protect the plots from floods. Often, these cemeteries contain homemade or mail-order markers and you’ll rarely find huge monuments or masoleums in these graveyards.
  4. Garden Cemetery: As American attitudes changed toward death with the popularity of embalming (making death beautiful or lifelike), cemeteries also began to take on an aesthetic look. “Cemetery” replaced “graveyard” and “burying ground,” and the first park cemetery was created in 1831 at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massechusetts. This type of cemetery resembles a park, with paths, ponds, trees and benches. People began to use these garden cemeteries for group picnics or solitary contemplation, for strolls and even for making love. These cemeteries were named with monikers that helped people envision lovely parks. These cemeteries usually are large and if you’re seeking a grave you may need to stop at a garden cemetery office for a map.
  5. Urban Cemetery: City cemeteries might resemble stone yards with their rows of tombstones, straight paths and little foliage.
  6. Veterans Cemetery: These cemeteries are reserved for honorably discharge military men and their families. More than three million people, including veterans of every war and conflict – from the Revolutionary War to the war in Iraq and Afghanistan – are buried in national cemeteries created for veterans, which have a total of more than 17,000 acres of land from Hawaii to Maine and from Alaska to Puerto Rico.
  7. Memorial Park or Lawn-Park Cemetery: These cemeteries became popular in the late twentieth century (although the first one was built in 1917 – Forest Lawn in southern California), and they consist of flat, grassy lawns with little visible evidence that this is, indeed, a graveyard. The purpose behind these graveyards is to eliminate any suggestion of death, as most plots are marked with flat markers that are flush with the ground.
  8. Potter’s Field: This is where a county or city buried its poor residents, unkown drifters and the unwanted including criminals, suicides and illegitimate babies. Sometimes you may find mass graves, temporary markers or no marker at all.

Outside the church or town cemetery scenario, in most cases you may find graves places on an east-west axis with inscriptions facing east or west. Many inscriptions may face west so visitors do not stand on the grave to read the inscription. If you find a footstone marker to the west of the headstone, then you’ll know that the body was buried on an east-west axis so that – at the Christian resurrection – the body would rise facing east.

Unfortunately, since many weather patterns in this country move from west to east, the weather has become a factor in the deterioration of many headstone inscriptions.

Image: The town cemetery on the plains of Calhan, Colorado.

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