Week of February 12, 2023

Facts of Grave Importance


Originally, “graveyard” and “cemetery” were not interchangeable terms. For centuries, the deceased members of congregations were buried in crypts under their church or plots around the church in areas known as graveyards. However, as these filled up and populations grew, separate tracts of burial land unconnected with any particular church known as cemeteries became common.


A gravely ill person may seem closer to the grave, but notably, “grave” the adjective comes from the Latin “gravis” meaning heavy, weighty, and important, while “grave” the noun derives from Germanic with its current meaning: holes dug for the deceased.


East-facing graves are common around the world, so that the dead can face the rising sun or for various religious reasons both ancient and more modern.


The Egyptian pyramids are among the worlds most enduring grave markers. They stand above tombs of pharaohs, but also included supplies for the afterlife and the journey to it, as well as pictures and information about life at the time of the pyramids’ building.


Increasingly, burial plots are not full of bodies, but ashes. In the US, the 63.3% of people are expected to choose cremation by 2025, up from a mere 3.6% in 1960. The location of burial spots for ashes (if they are buried at all) is less regulated, and thus far more flexible.


In some places, traditional burials are simply impractical. New Orleans, for example, is located below sea level where the Mississippi River meets the Gulf of Mexico, and hence floods frequently. Since coffins contain both bodies and air, they would often rise to the top of saturated soil, sometimes even floating around on floodwaters, creating an obvious (and gruesome) health hazard. Accordingly, New Orleans began to require either cremation or above-ground tombs for the deceased.


The first use of the term “graveyard shift,” a work shift which typically begins at midnight, did not come from graveyards at all, but references to overnight shifts in mines. Besides both places being dark and spooky, there is no obvious connection.