Cemetery Language: A Glossary for Genealogists

Introduction: In this article, Gena Philibert-Ortega provides a glossary of terms genealogists encounter when researching cemeteries and their ancestor’s burial. Gena is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.”

Genealogy has its own language and abbreviations. Those new to genealogy quickly learn that lesson as they encounter phrases and abbreviations like the Genealogical Proof Standard (GPS) that are specific to family history research.

Photo: Hollywood Forever Cemetery, Los Angeles, California
Photo: Hollywood Forever Cemetery, Los Angeles, California. Credit: Gena Philibert-Ortega.

Cemeteries also have a language all their own. It can be helpful to understand this language as you research your ancestors and wander around cemeteries and graveyards. The following is a short glossary to help understand some of these terms.

  • Burial: To bury a body.
  • Burial Urn: Container used to bury cremated remains.
  • Casket: A “rectangular container used for holding a body at the time of burial, constructed of wood, metal, or bamboo.” (1)
  • Cemetery: A place where bodies are buried.
  • Cemetery Association: Tasked with the care and management of a cemetery.
  • Cemetery Deed: Legal document that provides evidence of ownership of a burial plot.
  • Cemetery Lot (or Burial Plot): A small piece of land at a cemetery used for burial.
  • Cemetery Map: Provides a map of the grounds that may include street names, or section numbers, or visual landmarks such as statues or water features, to make it easier to find burials.
  • Cenotaph: A memorial or headstone placed on a grave where there is no body buried.
Photo: cenotaph for Hattie McDaniel, Hollywood Forever Cemetery, Los Angeles, California
Photo: cenotaph for Hattie McDaniel, Hollywood Forever Cemetery, Los Angeles, California. Credit: Gena Philibert-Ortega.
  • Centerpiece: A sculpture or other type of monument, usually featured in the center of the cemetery. Centerpieces typically have historical or religious significance and are quite prominent in many religious cemeteries. (2)
  • Coffin: A container that holds a body at the time of burial.
  • Columbarium: “A building that is designed for the housing of cremated remains. A columbarium can be inside or outside and it can be freestanding or as part of a larger structure. Many cemeteries have columbaria housed within larger mausoleum buildings.” (3)
  • Crypt: Meant to hold a coffin; a chamber found underground or partially underground in a church or mausoleum.
  • Emblem: Carved, etched, or affixed to a monument displaying a logo from a military, fraternal, or other organization membership.
  • Endowment Care (or Perpetual Care): Ongoing funds to ensure the upkeep of the cemetery.
  • Family Mausoleum: Small mausoleum for burials within a specific family.
  • Footstone: A marker that lies at the foot of a grave, opposite the headstone.
  • Grave: A place where the deceased body is buried.
  • Graveyard: Typically different than a cemetery, it is usually found associated with a church.
  • Headstone: “Like markers, are memorials designed to designate individual interments on a plot. [They] can accommodate more inscriptions than a small and flat marker.” (1952) (4)
Photo: wreaths laid at headstones in Arlington National Cemetery
Photo: wreaths laid at headstones in Arlington National Cemetery. Credit: U.S. Army photo by Spc. James K. McCann; Wikimedia Commons.
  • Inscription: Biographical information found on a marker.
  • Interment: A burial.
  • Layout: “The spatial organization of a cemetery section or block. The layout may include designations for Sections, Blocks, Estates, Quadrants, and Spaces/Lots.” (5)
  • Ledger-Stone (or Recumbent Tomb): Origin stems from church floor tombs; these markers cover the grave or can be placed nearby. (1952) (6)
  • Mass Grave: A mass burial spot that might be used for reasons such as an epidemic or natural disaster.
  • Marker: “Monuments designed to designate the individual interments on a family plot, or in the single interment areas of the cemetery. The dimensions of these markers are usually established by cemetery regulations.” (1952) (7)
Photo: grave marker for Carl Switzer, Hollywood Forever Cemetery, Los Angeles, California
Photo: grave marker for Carl Switzer, Hollywood Forever Cemetery, Los Angeles, California. Credit: Gena Philibert-Ortega.
  • Mausoleum: A building that houses crypts, either for an individual, a family, or unrelated persons. May include a columbarium for cremains.
  • Memorial Park (or Lawn Cemetery): A park-like setting with open space. Popular starting in the 20th century.
  • Monolithic Tablet: A single slab of stone (1952). (8)
  • National Cemetery: Cemetery maintained by the U.S. government for military personnel who served honorably. Burials may include deceased spouses and minor children.
  • Niche: “An above ground, enclosed space which serves as the resting place for cremated remains, typically a square or rectangular compartment within a columbarium. Niches may be constructed of granite, glass, or concrete and may provide for memorialization on the exterior of the niche closure.” (9)
Photo: niche for cremains, Hollywood Forever Cemetery, Los Angeles, California
Photo: niche for cremains, Hollywood Forever Cemetery, Los Angeles, California. Credit: Gena Philibert-Ortega.
  • Ornamental Fence: Might be found around a plot or a singular grave.
  • Public Cemetery: Owned and maintained by a municipality such as a city.
  • Sarcophagus: Box-like receptacle for the deceased, above ground although can be buried. Usually found carved in stone.
  • Sexton: A person who looks after a cemetery. May also be in charge of digging graves.
  • Verse (or Epitaph): Phrases and verse etched or carved onto a monument. These could be chosen from a monument catalog.
  • Virtual Cemetery: A website that allows users to create cemeteries based on images or information provided to the website.

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(1) “Glossary of Cemetery Terms,” Cemetery.com (https://www.cemetery.com/learning-center/resources-directories/cemetery-terms/: accessed 26 September 2021).
(2) Ibid.
(3) Ibid.
(4) Barre Granite Associate, Monument Ideas. (1952) Available from Internet Archive https://archive.org/details/MonumentIdeas/mode/2up.
(5) “Glossary of Cemetery Terms,” Cemetery.com (https://www.cemetery.com/learning-center/resources-directories/cemetery-terms/: accessed 26 September 2021).
(6) Ibid.
(7) Barre Granite Associate, Monument Ideas. (1952) Available from Internet Archive https://archive.org/details/MonumentIdeas/mode/2up.
(8) Ibid.
(9) “Glossary of Cemetery Terms,” Cemetery.com (https://www.cemetery.com/learning-center/resources-directories/cemetery-terms/: accessed 26 September 2021).

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