A cemetery is a designated place where the remains of people who have died are laid to rest in specific, identifiable burial sites. Cemeteries are widely regarded as sacred places that are entrusted with respectfully caring for deceased individuals, along with the preservation of shared history.

More specifically, a cemetery is a dedicated area of land, containing precise plot locations with clearly demarcated boundaries, whereas a burial ground may be less formally planned and defined. Non-denominational, or secular, cemetery grounds are established by a cemetery authority and operate according to an internal set of rules and regulations. Religious cemetery grounds are controlled by a religious order and may be specially consecrated to make the grounds suitable for religious burial.

Cemeteries are primarily responsible for the maintenance and sale of physical burial rights such as plots, crypts, or niches and the ongoing care for the cemetery grounds and facilities. Cemeteries may also provide the labor necessary to perform the burial service which may include the opening the burial plot or crypt, setting of the vault, staffing for the burial service, closing the grave, reconditioning the area. Full-service cemeteries may additionally assist with the design, creation and installation of permanent memorialization honoring the deceased through a designated marker (headstone, bronze memorial, plaque, lettering or engraving). These services are typically performed by individuals who work for a cemetery, commonly referred to as cemeterians. Small and rural cemeteries that do not maintain a dedicated cemeterian staff, may rely upon volunteer cemetery associations or the vault company to perform any or all of the above listed services.

The cemetery and cemeterian services are distinguishable from those provided by funeral homes, or individuals who work for a funeral home who are referred to as funeral directors. A funeral director provides direct care of the deceased from the time of death until the time of burial. The funeral director’s care may include dressing, casketing, and embalming, as well as the supply of a casket, all necessary filings for permits, and the coordination with family, clergy, suppliers, and the cemetery.

Cemeteries may range in size from less than an acre to over 700 acres and vary in their available facilities. Many modern cemeteries have a fully staffed office and arrangement rooms open to visitors and mourners. Some cemeteries have interment (memorial) chapels that are used for gatherings before a burial. A combination cemetery will maintain a full-service funeral home or crematory located on the cemetery’s grounds. Cemeteries are regulated at the state and local level. Accordingly, each U.S. state and/or municipality may impose a unique set of rules governing burial practices. For example, in some states, it is illegal for cemeteries and funeral homes to be owned and operated by the same organization.

It is important to note that this is different than funeral homes which are regulated by the federal government through the FTC Funeral Rule.

Purpose & Characteristics of a Cemetery

A cemetery is responsible for providing dignified care for those buried within its grounds, and to be a comforting place for visitors and mourners who attend the cemetery to remember, pay tribute, and honor departed individuals.

One feature of a cemetery is the ability to memorialize individuals in proximity to their final resting place, through the use of various types of monuments, headstones and markers. The types of memorialization allowed determine the look, feel, and character of the cemetery. There are many specific types of cemeteries the most common of which are the monumental cemetery, memorial park, garden cemetery, VA cemeteries and natural or green burial grounds.

Within a cemetery, there are several types of burials and arrangements that may serve as a final resting place. For example, individuals may be buried (or interred) in a grave or entombed in a mausoleum crypt or sarcophagus or inurned. Most modern cemeteries also offer both interment and inurnment options for cremated remains as well as for traditional, full-body, burials.

Ownership of Cemeteries

There are a variety of ownership structures of cemeteries, which carry a unique set of rights and obligations. Each type of cemetery maintains an ownership structure, financial endowment plan, and staff configuration. Cemeteries may be public (owned by government) or private, religious or secular; for-profit or not-for-profit. The ownership of a cemetery determines the services offered and the perpetual funding structure. Accordingly, there are many types of cemeteries because each provides and serves the unique and personal backgrounds of individuals that rely on it for comfort, care, and service. A public cemetery will be financially supported in perpetuity by the municipality. A private cemetery must independently ensure its financial viability through either on-going care charges or trusting of perpetual care funds.

Types of Cemeteries

Cemeteries have been around and evolving since the beginning of human history. The cemetery is designed to reflect the religion and culture, beliefs and habits of the people it services. This has led to the evolution of many different types of cemeteries to serve the many different needs. The most common types of cemeteries include monumental cemetery, memorial park, garden cemetery, VA cemeteries and natural or green burial grounds. Unless specifically noted, most cemeteries do not allow for the burial of non-human remains, such as pets. However, there are specifically designated pet-cemeteries and pet sections at cemeteries across the U.S.

Ancillary Services Provided by Cemeteries

Modern cemeteries may offer a variety of visitor services like genealogy information, flower placement programs and special memorial events for holidays like Veteran’s Day, Memorial Day, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. In certain instances, using technology the physical cemetery is connected to virtual cemeteries through GIS mapping and intricate databases so that loved ones can virtually visit irrespective of their location.