Graveyard vs. Cemetery: What’s the difference?

In a recent post about Lancaster County’s oldest tombstone, a reader asked what’s the difference between a graveyard and a cemetery.

Good question!

Elizabeth King’s 1732 gravestone located in Chestnut Level Cemetery

Graveyard vs. Cemetery

Today, we use the terms graveyard and cemetery interchangeably. Both are used to describe the place where people are buried. But you might be surprised to know that there is a subtle difference between the two.


A graveyard is a burial ground within a churchyard or adjacent to a church. The image below shows the graveyard at Colemanville United Methodist. This photo was taken on June 12, 1906, at the funeral for the 11 men who died in the nearby Bausman Hollow dynamite factory explosion. Click here to learn more about the deadliest accident in Lancaster County history.

The graveyard at Colemanville United Methodist in Conestoga Township.


On the other hand, a cemetery is land designated as a burial ground, not attached to a church. It comes from the Greek word koimeterion, meaning bedroom or resting place. It originally applied to Roman catacombs.

Below is the image of the Benedict Eshleman Cemetery, also known as the Eshleman Family graveyard. It is one of Lancaster County’s older cemeteries.

Benedict Eshleman Cemetery hidden deep in the forests of Conestoga Township.

It has 27 marked graves from the Steman, Eshleman, Lingerfelter, Schenck, and Warfel families. Many of the headstones are written in German.

It is challenging to know how many people are buried in this graveyard. Several tombstones are so degraded they are nearly impossible to read. Still, others are just headstones of plain rock to mark the passage of their (perhaps more youthful) inhabitants.

Learn More

If you would like to learn more about various cemeteries and graveyards from around Lancaster County, check out these posts.

Tschantz Cemetery

Tschantz Cemetery is the final resting place for several of Lancaster’s first settlers and one of the County’s oldest cemeteries in the county. Click the link to learn more. 

Yes, the sign is technically incorrect. It should say cemetery since there is no church.

“Old” Chestnut Level Cemetery 

“Old” Chestnut Level Cemetery is located on the corner of River Road and Slate Hill Road in Drumore Township. It is enclosed by a three to four foot high stone wall with a thick slate top. The cornerstone on the gate’s left reads, “Chestnut Level Cemetery Founded  1725,” which makes it eight years older than Tschantz Cemetery. On the gate’s right, the words “Wall Rebuilt 1905” are inscribed. Click here to learn more.

Chestnut Level Cemetery Founded 1725

Shock Graveyard

In East Donegal Township near the Susquehanna River is the village of Rowenna. It is here along Old River Road that you will find Shock Graveyard. A four-foot-tall masonry wall encircles this small and nearly forgotten two-centuries-old cemetery. Oddly enough, it has no gate or entrance. The only way in is to scale the crumbling stone boundary. It’s as if it was built to keep people out…or something inside. Legend says it’s cursed.

Invoking the cemetery’s curse is devilishly simple. Those foolish enough to walk the perimeter of the graveyard seven times under the light of the full moon will perish before sunrise hunted down by the white werewolf. Click the link to learn more.

The graves inside of Shock Cemetery

Greenwood Cemetery

If you visit Lancaster’s 48-acre Greenwood Cemetery and walk to its highest point in the Buchanan Section, you will be greeted by the most curious of sights. Once heralded as “Lancaster’s Westminster Abbey,” sits the Greenwood Cemetery Mausoleum. Click the link to learn more.

Entrance to the Greenwood Cemetery Mausoleum.
Entrance to the Greenwood Cemetery Mausoleum

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