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A graveyard is a geographic area stipulated as a burial ground for dead humans. It may have traditional headstones and grave markers or be filled with unidentified remains with no identifiers on the graves. Graveyards are traditionally situated next to or near a church or other building designated as a place of worship. Cemetery has been the more common term for graveyards since the middle of the 1800s.
Prior to the seventh or eighth century, the bodies of deceased loved ones were disposed of in ways based on family tradition and religious beliefs. There were no established guidelines or generally accepted standards regarding the disposition of human remains. At this time, there were also no structures or buildings like churches or chapels that were dedicated to worship.
Over the next few hundred years, when civilizations started constructing buildings dedicated to religious services, the practice of burying humans in specified areas affiliated with the places of worship became popular. The common practice of the time was for the deceased family members of the very rich or members of nobility to be buried in crypts inside the religious structures or underneath the buildings. Those of lower social classes were compelled to bury their loved ones in plots of land surrounding the buildings, and graveyards were created.
The interior crypts generally had placards on them providing the name, dates of birth and death and other personal data about the deceased. Many families had their coats of arms depicted on the crypts. It was common for generations to be buried in the same tomb.
Not to be outdone by the rich and royal, graveyard markers proliferated. Depending on the financial status of the family, the markers ranged from simple wooden crosses to headstones hand carved by a local stonemason to reflect facts about the person buried in the plot. The local blacksmith was often hired to create a forged metal cross or other religious emblem to be placed on a grave.
In the late 18th century, graveyards lost popularity for several reasons. The population of industrialized nations experienced tremendous growth and there was not enough graveyard space to accommodate everyone’s burial needs. Devastating outbreaks of fatal diseases and epidemics were frequently traced to the soil contaminants produced by inner city graveyards. These conditions led to graveyards being located in remote areas outside of cities and rules of embalming being enforced to deter the spread of disease.
The world still has thousands of graveyards. They are typically the first places historians go to trace ancestral roots and research family histories. It is traditionally believed that a city or town’s graveyard is most likely the geographical center of where the town was originally established.