Spade & the Grave

death and burial through an archaeological lens

‘These are grave terms’ – terminology in historic mortuary archaeology (for colonial North America)


First of all, I’d like to start by acknowledging that my last post was two weeks ago and my reason for not posting more frequently is: a) the job hunt, and b) I have been madly finishing a paper and my thesis..which was submitted yesterday officially! Yay!

I thought it would be nice, and relevant to do a post today discussing terminology for burial spaces and monuments. The terms I’d like to go over have some history to them of course, but like anything, they can take on different meaning depending on who is using them and where they are in the world. For the purposes of this discussion, I’m looking exclusively at colonial North America because that is my current study area, and dealing with basically only British/Irish, Christian (Catholic/Anglican/Quaker/Puritan,etc) burial spaces at this point. (I’m looking forward to seeing how these change as I go back in time a bit for PhD research in a few years)


Hartford, CT burial ground, facing the later-added church. Photo by author, 2015

 When people talk about burial spaces today, the terms burial ground, cemetery and graveyard are often used interchangeably. In terms of a modern space, this may be considered acceptable by done, however these terms do have specific meanings which do not necessarily overlap with one another. In terms of the 17th-century, these terms have meaning that is politically charged in some cases. Lets discuss!

The term graveyard is often interchangeable with a churchyard, but in some cases even these terms do not overlap. A churchyard is meant to indicate the area surrounding a Christian Church, a space that you might hear referred to as ‘God’s Green Acre’. The yard is often enclosed and the barrier marks the physical edge of the consecrated ground. This same space also can function as a graveyard, but only if individuals were buried there, which might not be the case around every church. The term graveyard, however, refers to the organized space associated with a specific church and parish area, and will only be filled with members of that congregation. Historically, burials that took place near a place of worship were usually associated with that place of worship, and thus the churchyard can simultaneously be a graveyard as well.

What about a cemetery, you might be thinking! Cemetery and graveyard are often used today to talk about the same site, but in modern archaeological and historical descriptions, the term cemetery often refers to an organized burial space that may not be associated with a church (it might be municipal), and today many are non-denominational. In North America, the term cemetery was not even existent in the 17th century! Cemeteries or cemetery gardens, did not appear as a burial option in North America until the construction of the Mount Auburn Cemetery in 1831 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Mount Auburn really sparked the rise of the rural cemetery garden in America, as we can see it reflected today (Linden-Ward 1989, Curl 2001, Baugher and Veit 2014).
Mount Auburn will also host the Death Salon 2018, if you are interested in this sort of thing!

This change in burial traditions and terms used to describe burials shows a linguistic reflection of the changing burial practices that were associated with the colonial period, replacing the disordered (graveyards and burial grounds) with the pre-planned and organized cemetery. (Baugher and Veit 2014:125, Lacy 2017:9). Today, cemeteries are a very popular and common choice for burial in North America, and many sites even allow the burial of cremated remains which is not permitted in most church graveyards.


Hartford, CT, 1640. Drawn from town records in 1838 by William S. Porter. Note plot 59, sold for ‘Burying Plot’. 

In colonial North America, many early British settlements were founded by people who did not conform with the newly in power Anglican Church. Many dissenters, including Puritans in many cases, believed that if the position of the body had no effect on the afterlife / leaving purgatory, as purgatory had been abolished, then the placement of the body in the consecrated ground of a churchyard did not matter either. The term burial / burying ground was often used by certain groups of settlers in New England and by dissenter grounds in the British Isles to reiterate the non-religious nature of the spaces they used for burials (Hopkins 2014:15-17, Lacy 2017:10). The New England burial ground was an unconsecrated space for organized burials, municipally owned and operated, and not associated with a church. By refusing to bury in consecrated spaces or even construct churches in some settlements, settlers were making an obvious political and religious statement against the Church of England in the 17th century (Hopkins 2014:9-10). By going ahead and producing physical maps which labeled the burial spaces as a burying ground or some variation of the term, the settlers were making a statement, powered by the political turmoil they had left in the British Isles (Lacy 2017:10). Of course, burial ground is not a perfect catch all term to describe all burial spaces from the 17th-century, but in terms of modern description it has sort of become just that. A cemetery is a cemetery and a graveyard is a graveyard, but a burial ground could viably be used as a blanket term in many cases, as long as we are aware of the history it carries for some sites.

For the purposes of my thesis, I used burial ground to indicate a site that I was unsure about the nature of. If I knew that the site was deliberately not associated with a church OR I did not know how a church was associated with the site, the site was referred to as a burial ground. If I knew there was a church originally associated with the site, it was called a graveyard. No site in my research was labelled as a cemetery, as I mentioned about this type of site did not exist yet.

But what of the markers for burials?

We use so many different words for the markers that people use to indicate a human burial. I’ve heard anything from gravestone, tombstone, gravemarker, memorial stone, mortuary sculpture, monument, or memorial being used to describe all manner of markers. I wanted to spend a few sentences trying to unpack some of these terms a bit!


Obelisk marking a grave, Gwynedd, north Wales. Photo by author, 2012. 

When we call something a gravestone, it should suggest that it is indeed made from stone. Gravestone can sometimes be a catch-all for stone pieces that mark a grave, and archaeologically we have broken the term down further to refer to different styles of stone marker such as a ledger (large flat slab on the ground), table or table-tomb (ledger with 4 or 6 legs holding it up), and other styles such as crosses, columns, statues, and wall monuments. The term gravestone itself usually indicates what we would consider a ‘traditional’ gravestone, an upright stone piece with an inscription carved into one face with some to no decoration. This style isn’t really common in the British Isles until after the Reformation so there aren’t many examples prior to the late 1500s. (another reason is that pre-Reformation stones were vandalized / made from another material and didn’t survive)

I am partial to the term mortuary sculpture because it works for multiple material types and could be used for different sizes objects as well. It was pointed out to me that this brings up ideas of art more than heritage and archaeology, but I believe that the carved and built structures and objects that people use to mark a grave are as much art as they are documentation. If you commissioned a gravestone in the 1600s, you wanted it to be beautiful as well as presenting important information. Calling it a mortuary sculpture could also be used for invoking a memory in a place where no one is buried.

I do not find the term memorial very precises as an overall term, as the term is often applied to places like a wall with fallen soldiers’ names, but not where they are buried. In a similar vein, monument suggests something large, like a statue or a plaque to an event more than an individual. Of course, some people’s graves are marked by very large constructions, and monument may very well be the best term to refer to them by!

As with any field, these terms are fluid and up for debate as new information and arguments are presented. Of course, these definitions I’ve mentioned above only refer to the field that I’m currently working in the 17th-century. I’d love to hear your views about these terms! What does burial ground or graveyard mean to you, or in the time period you work in? Leave me a comment!


Work Cited: 

Baugher, S., and Veit, R.F. 2014. The Archaeology of American Cemeteries and Gravemarkers. University Press of Florida, Gainesville, Florida.

Curl, J. S. 2000. Reprint: 2001. The Victorian Celebration of Death. Sutton Publishing, Gloucestershire.

Hopkins, C.G.D. 2014. The Shadow of Change: Politics and Memory in New England’s Historic Burying Grounds, 1630-1776. Ph.D. dissertation, Department of American Studies, Harvard University, Boston.

Lacy, R. 2017. ‘Here lieth interr’d’ An examination of 17th-century British burial landscapes in eastern North America. Masters Thesis, Department of Archaeology, Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John’s.

Linden-Ward, B. 1989. Strange but Genteel Pleasure Grounds: Tourist and leisure Uses of Nineteenth-Century Rural Cemeteries. In Cemeteries and Gravemarkers: voices of American Culture, edited by Richard E. Meyer, pp. 293-328. UMI Research Press: London.

Author: Robyn S. Lacy

Archaeologist / Cultural Heritage / Burial Ground Restoration

5 thoughts on “‘These are grave terms’ – terminology in historic mortuary archaeology (for colonial North America)

  1. Pingback: Canadian History Roundup – Week of September 17, 2017 | Unwritten Histories

  2. Admit I never gave mortuary sculpture much thought before. It is descriptive. But was it ever used at the time or commissioning/erection? What would the stone and letter carvers call them? For some reason I’d be more inclined to use sculture for a figurative piece or a multiple-component monument with figures or classical columns/urns.

    We still like grave monument and grave memorial. A grave monument is almost always stone – mid 1800s we’re getting cement also. A grave memorial can be _anything_ – have seen a 6 inch nail which we recorded as a grave memorial. Have seen a plastic folder on an iron peg which we recorded as a grave memorial.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for your comment! I admit, it’s an imperfect system, trying to define these elements. I can see ‘mortuary sculpture’ being used more for figurative or multi-component examples as you said, but also as potentially a contemporary term for monuments, as a result of the artistry that goes into them. Lately I have been calling everything a ‘grave/burial marker’, to include ones that aren’t made of stone or cement, or gravestone if I’m referring to one specific stone. Of course these terms, as with most of language, are pretty fluid between regions..or days. I’m on the fence about monument, even though I know it’s widely used.

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  3. And of course, Headstones & Footstones? In old English graveyards you sometimes find the small footstone has been “tidied” away against the nearest main headstone, to make lawn moving easier. These small tombstones often hold little more than initials, often of an infant burial. One problem I have is describe memorials that are placed as headstones but are not made of natural stone: examples include Coade stone, terracotta and other ceramics, metals and wood, and hybrid natural stone with tile inserts. The term “grave marker” is problematic for me too: I have seen pauper graves or institutional burial grounds where they simply placed a small marker stone or terracotta post with nothing more than a number on it. That, at its most raw, is a “grave marker” for an inmate’s body – someone who was not even accorded a name.


    • Thanks for pointing that out, I completely forgot to discuss headstones and footstones. However, I still would be hesitant to use them as a catch-all sort of term, as we often don’t know what end of a grave a small marker is located at, especially with such a long history of burial grounds seeing their markers reorganized or removed for mowing. I see what you mean about the simple markers, but I think that helps to strengthen the term as a general one for all different kinds of ways to mark a grave, from the simple or unsympathetic, to the large and ornate.


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