Appalachia Appalachian Dialect

Usage of the Word Cemetery

History of the word cemetery

I’ve been reading an interesting book recently, Tarheel Talk. It was published in 1956 by The University of North Carolina Press and was written by Norman E. Eliason. In the Preface of the book Eliason sums up his purpose in writing the book.

“Several years ago I began examining the manuscript material of the southern Historical Collection at the University of North Carolina to see what information was available there of interest or value to the student of language. Because some limitation seemed necessary, I decided to concentrate on the North Carolina material alone, which is much fuller than that of any other state, and to stop with the year 1860, for usage since then can be better got at by relying on living informants. Even so, the material was so abundant that I had to skim much of it hastily, and I have undoubtedly overlooked a great deal of worth-while information. This is a report of what I found.”

Eliason goes on to explain that instead of looking at legal or government documents he focused on writings produced by every day people. Some writings were of a personal nature sent between family and friends while others were of a more business like manner.

I found it fascinating that in 1831 Charles Pettigrew wrote his father to explain what the word cemetery meant. Apparently the word and its usage was unfamiliar to both men previous to this time.

“At your request I have found out what that word meant and how it is spelt[.] it is spelt cemetery and means a burying place a church yard (July 14, 1831, Charles Pettigrew, Orange)”

Apparently the common name for cemetery prior to 1831 was burying place or/and church yard.

I use the words cemetery and graveyard to describe a place where people are buried – what do you use?



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  • Reply
    Brent Clayton
    November 26, 2018 at 10:42 pm

    We”ve always called then either cemetry or graveyard. The graveyard I take care of is on a hill behind the house of family that donated the land. It in there way a pauper’s row where people were buried that didnt have any money. As far as I know no one has ever been charged for a plot. The only requirement is to have kinfolk buried there or have grown up i that area. I knew or heard my momma talk about most of the people buried there. I can remember some of the stories she told about them. They were all just home folk . There are a lot of baby graves. A lot of old interesting markers. Some just marked with a rock. One childs grave has a a piece of concrete proped up again the headstone with marbles and seashells pressed into it
    As far as the shiver when a rabbit runs over your grave, I always heard this but with a possum instead of rabbit!

  • Reply
    Tim Ryan
    November 19, 2016 at 8:40 pm

    Graveyard workings were an important social event on Keith Springs Mountain when I taught
    in the one-teacher school there. Three small graveyards at two churches and one isolated at the end of a long road along a ridge. One custom stood out as unique in my experience.
    The soil above each grave that had a family to tend it was chopped with a hoe till only bare dirt remained. Then the soil was mounded up like a grave that had just been filled. I asked a community elder why they did this. She replied, “So that we remember the pain we felt the day that daddy died.”

  • Reply
    Rev. Rose Marie "RB" Redmond
    November 6, 2015 at 6:30 pm

    I’ve always used the word “cemetery” and can’t remember our British Isle or Middle European ancestors calling it anything different, but I could be wrong.
    How about you?
    God bless.

  • Reply
    November 6, 2015 at 6:28 am

    Jack-thank you for the comment! Yep Ive heard the one about the rabbit and the grave and the one about a person walking over your grave that B.Ruth mentioned. Both used to mean you got the shivers or you felt like your hair was standing on end when something strange or eerie happened : )

  • Reply
    b. Ruth
    November 6, 2015 at 3:24 am

    and Jack….How can one shiver if a rabbit runs over their grave? I have also heard, when one has a chlll, that someone walked on their grave!….However, If one is alive, how could one shiver if a rabbit ran over their grave…or person? Then again, maybe they had a pre-arranged plot of dead-designation!
    So that could explain it somewhat…
    Can’t sleep this morning…so I’m pondering todays comments!
    Ken, wish I had a Chinquapin or two or three….ha That handy-dandy nut cracker you make would probably crush them…ha I’m keeping an eye out for walnuts this year….some are already falling of course.
    Well, guess I’ll visit the Moravians site…Ed has me curious about some of their idea’s!
    Thanks Tipper,
    PS…I ordered some Turkey Books/Cook books of Jim Casada and wife! Thought they might have some different ways of cookin’ or smokin’ the bird…ha
    I would love to have his new book about Turkey folks that is featured on WNC The Read website!

  • Reply
    George Pettie
    November 5, 2015 at 6:50 pm

    Amen to Ed Ammons!
    I use cemetery, and sometimes graveyard.
    In Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, it was “burying ground” or “burial ground” way back in the 19th and early 20th centuries, when most graves in those hills and hollows were in family plots or community graveyards that were not associated with churches.
    By the way, it was while researching Appalachian funeral practices that I came across Blind Pig and The Acorn.

  • Reply
    November 5, 2015 at 6:28 pm

    We’ve always used them both, describing the same thing.. I’ve always said best neighbors anyone could ever have..

  • Reply
    Miss Cindy
    November 5, 2015 at 2:04 pm

    Cemetery is the word I use most when talking of a burial place however I’d
    say graveyard and cemetery are about 50/50 in the words I hear used for a burial place.
    I’ve never consciously thought about which word to use so I think that means that cemetery must be what I grew up hearing.

  • Reply
    Edwin Ammons
    November 5, 2015 at 1:17 pm

    Something I forgot to mention. A lady friend at work never married and lived with her parents. She was an only child. When her father died the Church where his membership was wanted sell them a grave site. It was the custom that members in good standing got free plots. He hadn’t been attending services but was the church custodian until he got too sick to perform that duty.
    The family had always assumed they had a place to rest at their demise. Instead of paying the church for the plot or buying one in a memorial park or another church, they elected to bury Dad in the front yard. Just a few steps from the front door. Soon Mama died and was buried beside him.
    My friend is diabetic and suffers from a nerve disorder. She is wheelchair bound. I fear she will soon be there beside her parents.
    I wonder what the proximity of those graves will do to the property value if it goes on the market. Will that be a selling point. “Property includes readily accessible private cemetery!”

  • Reply
    Ed Ammons
    November 5, 2015 at 12:55 pm

    To me it was and is a Grave Yard but I do use Cemetery when I have to. My people are those people who would have never heard the word Cemetery. I think it is more respectful to use words they would be familiar with.
    The Moravian’s down in Winston-Salem (Old Salem) bury their loved ones in God’s Acre. If you haven’t read up on them you ought to. They have some burial customs that are out of the mainstream like not burying men and women together and having the same size stone. To me their customs make a lot of sense. Here is a website that explains some of it.
    They can bury me in a Graveyard, a Churchyard, a Burying Ground, a Potter’s Field or God’s Acre but if I end up in a Memorial Park somewhere, somebody is going to get a haunting!

  • Reply
    November 5, 2015 at 11:58 am

    Speaking of graveyards, have you ever heard the expression, “a rabbit ran over your grave”? It was a statement made when someone had a sudden shiver. Not sure of it’s derivation, but heard it used frequently when I was a child.

  • Reply
    Ken Roper
    November 5, 2015 at 11:30 am

    If someone asks me where my parents are buried, I say “in the grave yard right beside the Red Marble Church.” Seems like I can’t think of the word Cemetery
    quick enough.
    I picked up some Chiquapins this morning (burr and all) for my daughters, in case
    they want to use them in their Christmas Decorations. You ate one that The Deer
    Hunter peeled for you awhile back. …Ken

  • Reply
    Ron Banks
    November 5, 2015 at 11:19 am

    I use cemetery more than graveyard. To me cemetery sounds more respectful. For some reason and I’m sure it’s all the childhood games, but a graveyard is a more morbid place but the cemetery is where you lay your loved ones to rest.

  • Reply
    November 5, 2015 at 10:38 am

    I agree with Ed as I grew up using graveyard and cemetery interchangeably. However, thinking back I somehow think of Halloween/spirits when I use the term graveyard. Cemetery was used most often in my growing up years. Burying place is easily understood by most. Sometimes for lack of a sophistic word back, simple words were used to explain something. A few years back, a teacher used the term ‘writing stick’ when requesting a pencil. I could only account for this use as something she grew up with. It came to her mind faster than the word pencil. I find the study of various word usage very interesting. Keep up the great research. I really enjoy reading about it.

  • Reply
    November 5, 2015 at 10:29 am

    I grew up hearing it called graveyard, but these days it’s a cemetery.

  • Reply
    b. Ruth
    November 5, 2015 at 9:12 am

    This is “a new wrinkle on my sheep’s horn”, I’ve never really thought of it much. I do remember back in the day, my parents referred to “cemetery” for the burial ground near town that was not associated with any church or denomination. They said burying place or actually named the church and yard for their parents resting place in NC…
    Most city churches don’t have a burying place or church yard anymore…Of course, unless it was an old, old church and survived the invasion and growth of a city around them. Then, restrictions, city codes etc. were put in place for burial’s there, with no room to expand!
    Could this mean, in retrospect, that one could outgrow their burying! The devil made me type that! It was just too easy!
    I used say graveyard…I use cemetery most of the time nowadays…
    Thanks Tipper,
    Interesting post!

  • Reply
    Ethelene Dyer Jones
    November 5, 2015 at 8:56 am

    “Graveyard” was our most common designation around Choestoe, although we did use “cemetery” also. Both graveyard and cemetery were used to indicate the area on church property set aside to bury the dead. The area was kept up by the church and someone within the membership was designated as the one (cemetery chairman?) to “keep up with” the lots and how they could be either purchased or secured by families in the membership. But there were other places in our community where buryings had occurred–like near homes, on a knoll above a house, or in a field owned by someone. “I once wrote a plaintive poem about “The Cemetery at Six Oaks,” a lonely and often neglected burial spot where some of my ancestors had been buried away back in the mid-1850’s in early-settlement times. These places were often referred to as burial places, or by the name of the first person buried there, or, as the cemetery of my poem, where “Six tall oaks” marked the spot. Of course, some of those oaks, too, went by way of time. We are still looking for the old “Souther Family Burial Ground.” These have a way of getting lost and being neglected when land changes ownership or all the people die who first buried a loved one in the family burial ground.

  • Reply
    Ron Stephens
    November 5, 2015 at 8:41 am

    Wow, this goes way back into my boyhood. I cannot be sure but I think the traditional term was ‘grave yard’. Probably by the time I came along in the 50’s both terms were in use. The thing is, by then Appalachian dialect had been affected by radio for roughly 30 years. I suspect ‘cemetery’ is a ‘fotched on’ word picked up from outside. I am most likely to use ‘cemetery’ but might well switch to grave yard without even being conscious of it if I were in a situation were I heard distinctly Appalachian talk that served as ‘triggers’. I can’t catch myself doing it so I don’t know why I do, just that I do.
    There is an old gospel song with the line ‘I was strolling one day in a lonely grave yard….’ There is also the Graveyard Fields on the Blue Ridge Parkway, thought to have been so named because of the numerous grave-like mounds of tree root balls after a blowdown.
    A particular meaning of ‘yard’ is ‘gathering’ as a verb and ‘gathering place’ as a noun; for example cattle yard, log yard, pulpwood yard, barn yard. Thus grave yard would be a gathering of graves. I suspect the multiple uses of ‘yard’ also indicate grave yard as the traditional term. In contrast, ‘cemetery’ is most often a noun only and is very specific in meaning and has only very limited combination with other words such as ‘cemetery flowers’.
    You do make me think !

  • Reply
    November 5, 2015 at 8:33 am

    All I ever remember my parents calling them was grave yards. I still call the old ones back home grave yards, but for some reason that word is not fitting for the big and modern burial places I call cemeteries.

  • Reply
    November 5, 2015 at 8:19 am

    Graveyard was used mostly growing up. It always seemed to give a mental image of an old scary place, perhaps even haunted. Thankfully extended family taught me a totally different idea about the final resting place. I like the term cemetery much better, and as an adult see the burial place as a place of peace and respect.
    Our family cemeteries are treated very reverently with times and money set aside for cleanups. Some are extremely remote, but are still cleaned and visited on a regular basis. A few years ago some raised money to mark ancestor graves from 1800’s. I personally love that best about Appalachian customs in Appalachia. To see a group of young folks helping with cleanup is proof enough that there is a great future for many young folks.

  • Reply
    November 5, 2015 at 8:07 am

    I haven’t used, or heard, the term graveyard in quite a while. It seems most people use graveyard more in a Halloween type of way. It just sounds more scary.

  • Reply
    Mike McLain
    November 5, 2015 at 7:29 am

    I also use cemetery and graveyard, pretty much interchangeably.

  • Reply
    Barb Wright
    November 5, 2015 at 7:20 am

    Just about 1/4 mile up the road from my house is the “church yard”. The small church is still active and the yard is very full. Much of my family rests there. However,nobody calls it the church yard’s just the cemetery.

  • Reply
    Sheryl Paul
    November 5, 2015 at 7:09 am

    Grave yard was what I heard most as a child. Cemetary I had to learn to use, but sometimes I slip up a bit.

  • Reply
    Sheryl Paul
    November 5, 2015 at 7:09 am

    Grave yard was what I heard most as a child. Cemetary I had to learn to use, but sometimes I slip up a bit.

  • Reply
    Sheryl Paul
    November 5, 2015 at 7:09 am

    Grave yard was what I heard most as a child. Cemetary I had to learn to use, but sometimes I slip up a bit.

  • Reply
    Sheryl Paul
    November 5, 2015 at 7:09 am

    Grave yard was what I heard most as a child. Cemetary I had to learn to use, but sometimes I slip up a bit.

  • Reply
    Ed Mahaffey
    November 5, 2015 at 6:55 am

    My wife once told me that the primary distinction between a graveyard and a cemetery is that a graveyard is located adjacent to a church. I personally use the terms interchangeably, although I heard “graveyard” much more frequently as a boy.

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