I can remember it clear as day, now fifty years later. I could see what my semester grade was: 68. I was looking down at the grade book lying open on his desk: not passing. I’m sure even 68 was generous. I was a flake. I did no studying. I could have cared less about Latin.
Mr. Johnson looked up at me. He was old, he had a shock of white hair, and he was kind. He smiled at me. He didn’t want me in his class again, either. He gave me a D.
Take that for what you will. I’m sure Mr. Johnson smiles down on me, yet, from his place in the firmament, bemused that I should publish a glossary and pretend to any competence.
I have limited the glossary, for the most part, to terms directly associated with the cemetery, eschewing funerals, religious services, embalming practices, and the like. Even so, I imagine there are any number of specialized terms I ignored or of which I am ignorant. Please be so kind as to fill in the gaps. I harbor no pretense to erudition or expertise and accept amendments cheerfully.
Were I to leave you with but one word, it would be eschatology. That’s the name of the field.
May I have a word with you?
A platform on which a corpse or a coffin containing a corpse is placed prior to burial, or a coffin along with its stand.
Coming via Old English from similar words (e.g. beere) having the sense of “to carry,” witness such words as “bear,” as in to bear children, or “barrow,” as in wheel barrow.
An 8x10 rectangle of black glass into which the deceased’s name and statistics were etched and subsequently embedded in stone or concrete, popular in the late 1930s and early 40s; manufactured by Memorial Arts in Portland.
“Black,” like its antonym “white,” is essentially unchanged in meaning through time. “Glass” likewise has retained an ancient meaning, originally from a presumed Indo-european root ghel-, “to shine or glitter, especially with a green or yellow cast.
Container in which a corpse is buried or cremated.
Of uncertain origin. Predates “cask” which precludes it being a diminutive of said word.
A cave, grotto, or large subterranean space used as a burial ground, commonly in the plural.
Borrowed from Latin via Italian. The Latin catacumbae first designated a set of underground tombs between the second and third milestones of the Appian Way. Before that its origins are in some dispute.
For the most part, the catafalque is the stand upon which a coffin rests during viewing or the funeral service. The Catholics also use it as a pall-covered faux-casket used in a requiem Mass after the burial.
Taken from the Italian, meaning “scaffold,” where the trail gets obscure; but it looks related to the French word for scaffold, échafaut.
A place for burying the dead; a graveyard. The Catholic Encyclopedia says this about “cemetery”: “The word coemeterium or cimiterium (in Gr. koimeterion) may be said in early literature to be used exclusively of the burial places of Jews and Christians.”
Slowly twisted up to us from the Latin and French and ultimately the Greek koiman, “to put to sleep,” itself from an Indo-European root with the senses of “to lie; bed, couch; dear, beloved,” itself an interesting comment on associations. Other words with the same root include “to hide” and “city.”
An empty tomb or a monument erected in honor of a person buried elsewhere.
From the Greek kenos, “empty,” and taphos, “tomb.” (Keno players take note.)
Cloth coated with wax or gummy matter and formerly used for wrapping dead bodies.
A mongrel word formed by joining the Latin word for wax, cera, to the English word “cloth.”
Synonymous with “cerecloth.”
From the Latin cera, “wax,” plus the suffix “-ment.”
A building, room, or vault in which the bones or bodies of the dead are placed. Also used without the “house” and as an adjective.
The first syllable “char” comes down from the Latin through French meaning “flesh.” It’s the same “char” that appears in “charcuterie,” an establishment selling cooked meats or the contents of such a shop.
A place for maintaining the ashes of a cremated body.
Things having to do with cremation are cinerary, in particular cinerary urns, in which the Romans kept their dead. From the Latin word cinis, “ashes,” whence incinerate, etc.; which is probably why “columbarium” is preferred for the same thing, the association being with doves instead.
Gravediggers’ cant referring to sealing a grave and backfilling with dirt.
“Close,” has retained its meaning and related forms since Latin (via French), where is derives from clausus, itself the past participle of claudere, “to close, enclose, put an end to.” It ultimately issues from a Proto-Indo-European root, as well: *klau-, “crooked or forked branch used as a bolt.”
A container in which a corpse is buried or cremated; synonymous with “casket.”
Middle English borrowed this French word for “basket.” The French borrowed it from the Latins who in turn borrowed it from the Greeks.
A wall of niches which contain urns or boxes of ashes of the dead; also one of the niches in such a wall.
The Latin word for “dove” is columba. In much of the Mediterranean world dovecotes are built as walls or towers of niches in which the doves build their nests and from which the farmers can harvest the eggs and birds. Columbaria look like dovecotes. The wild columbine looks like five doves facing each other in a circle. And don’t forget Christopher Columbus.
A lamentation for the dead.
With several alternative spellings, from the Gaelic for “a crying.”
A portmanteau word carrying the meaning of “cremated remains.”
For the source of “cremated,” see “crematorium” below. “Remains” is ultimately from Latin manere, “to stay,” and the prefix re- which can have the meaning of “back”; hence, “to remain” equals “to stay back.”
Either the furnace for burning corpses or the building in which such a furnace is contained.
From the Germanic branch of the Indo-European root ker-, “heat, fire,” the source of such diverse words as “hearth,” “carbon,” “carbuncle,” “charcoal,” and, of course, “cremate.”
Underground vault or chamber, especially one beneath a church that is used as a burial place.
From the Greek via Latin, coming from the Greek word kruptein, “to hide.”
A mournful funeral hymn. A complicated explanation for a simple history.
It came from the Latin for “to direct,” and was part of a call and response routine in the Catholic Office of the Dead, i.e. their service for the dead. Because of its location as the first word in this mournful response, it eventually became shorthand for the whole thing and acquired the meaning of the whole and subsequently took on the independent sense of a hymn to the dead.
An ancient Celtic structure most often regarded as a burial chamber, consisting of two upright stones plus a horizontal capstone. Synonymous with “cromlech.”
Different sources give different origins for “dolmen,” though all point to a Celtic origin. The second syllable, “men,” comes from the Celtic word for “stone,” men, which is also encountered in “menhir,” upright stones found abundantly singly or in groups in Brittany and Cornwall, in particular.
A melancholy song or poem composed in remembrance of the dead.
Essentially unchanged from the Greek in meaning and not too changed in spelling, elegos, a mournful song.
The process of preserving a dead body by means of circulating preservatives and antiseptics through the veins and arteries.
Goes back to the Semitic word for “balsam,” the plant, whose name is essentially the same as the word “balm”; balsam, evidently, being a prime ingredient in the process from a very early date. We got it from Old French, which brought it in from Latin.
An epitaph can be either the inscription on or at a grave or tomb or a brief writing mimicking a real epitaph.
From the Greek through Latin and French; epi- meaning “at, upon,” while taphos means “tomb.” Cf. cenotaph.
Eschatology has two senses: one is as a collection of beliefs surrounding death and the end of days; the other is the study of such beliefs. In Christian theology, it’s the study of death, judgment, heaven, and hell.
From the Greek eskhatos, “last,” plus the common suffix “-logy,” which issues from the Greek “to speak,” most specifically about a given subject.
“Grave” has three senses relating to death. There is the hole into which the body is interred, which extends to the general place of burial; and, finally, it is allegorical for death itself.
From the Germanic for “trench” or “grave” through various forms of English meaning “to dig, scratch, or engrave.” You might think of gravlax, which is salmon that has been buried for a period of time.
Originally the hearse was a harrow-shaped structure for holding candles over a coffin and still retains that meaning, but its more current usage is as the vehicle used for transportation of the casket.
From the Latin word for “harrow,” which itself probably came from the Oscan word for “wolf,” on account of the harrow’s resemblance to wolf’s teeth.
An ancient subterranean burial chamber, such as a catacomb, usually used by one family or a particular group.
From the Greek word meaning “underground.”
As a noun or either a transitive or intransitive verb, it expresses deep grief or mourning.
Another word drifting down through the ages essentially unchanged in form or content. Ultimately from the Latin lamentum, with the same meaning.
Or ledger stone. Stone slab covering most or all of a grave, often with extensive writing.
From the earlier legger, “book”; probably from a sense of “to lay.” “Ledger” is also used in the building trades to denote a particular element of scaffolding support.
More or less synonymous with “niche,” excepting that loculi tend to be reserved for entire remains, whereas niches are reserved for cremated remains.
From the Latin for “little place,” loculus; itself the diminuative of the Latin locus, meaning “place.”
A building, regardless of size or ornamentation, in which dead bodies are permanently housed.
The word has trickled down from the Greek, more or less unchanged, in which it is the name for the tomb of a satrap from Asia Minor named Mausolus. His tomb was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.
Any tall, narrow marker such as a column or obelisk made from a single stone.
A combinatorial word from the Greek mónos, “alone”; and lithos, “stone.”
A place where the bodies of the dead are maintained, that they may be identified or claimed; a deadhouse.
Named after a building in Paris, La Morgue, which had the same purpose as the English morgue. Supposition has it that its name came from the word morgue, meaning a “haughty or arrogant manner,” which somehow got transformed into “solemnity”; but there is no direct evidence for such.
In current usage it means either a burial place for the dead or a place where the dead can be visited before burial.
Webster’s equates “mortuary” with “morgue,” but “morgue” has more the sense of “governmental structure,” whereas “mortuary” has more the sense of a “private burial home or viewing residence.” At one time a mortuary was a gift given to the minister of the parish of the dead person, ostensibly to cover any arrears in tithing the dead may have occurred. The panoply of “mort-” words stem from the Latin word for “dead,” mortuus. Besides the obvious, other “mort-” words include “nightmare, morsel, morbid, mortgage, and ambrosia.”
Literally, a city of the dead. A cemetery, especially a large and elaborate one belonging to an ancient city.
From a Greek word, the components of which are nekro, “corpse,” and polis “city.”
A hollowed space in a wall made especially (in this connotation) for placing of urns containing cremated remains.
There are two competing theories as to the origin of “niche.” No one argues that we borrowed it from the French, but there’s a question of from whence the French got it. One school says it’s a corruption of the Old Italian word nicchio, “seashell”; but a better argument is that it’s derived from the Latin for “nest,” nidus, the argument that my Petit Robert makes. Ultimately it comes from the Indo-European root sed-, from which a whole host of words including “sit, saddle, settle, sewer, assess. posses, preside, supersede, cathedral, chair, ephedrine, tetrahedron, soil, sedate, banshee,” and “soot” derive.
A tapering, four-sided stone pillar, usually monolithic and capped with a pyramidal apex. In cemeteries a fashionable imitation of Egyptian custom.
From the Greek obelískos, “small spit,” derived from obel(ós), “spit, pointed pillar” plus the diminutive suffix -iskos.
In gravediggers’ cant, it refers to digging a grave: one opens a grave.
“Open” has kept its form, more or less, and its meaning for a long time. Ultimately it’s from the Proto-Indo-European *upo, “up from under, over,” and is related to “up.”
For the most part it means an often velvet cloth draped over a coffin, bier, or tomb, but occasionally it refers to the coffin as it’s being carried to the grave.
Old English pæll, “cloak, covering” from the Latin pallium meaning the same.
A one-foot by two-foot, raised flat marker, so named for its resemblence to the household item.
Ultimately from the Latin pulvinus, “cushion.”
A pile of combustibles for burning a corpse as a funeral rite.
The same word as “fire” only spelled slightly differently, but from the same Indo-European root paw, “fire.”
A mass, musical composition, hymn, or service for the dead.
A case of the first word of a long speech coming to represent the entire speech. In this case, the first word of the Catholic mass for the dead is the Latin requis, “rest,” from whence the entire mass or, subsequently, musical composition. The ultimate Indo-European root kweie, “quiet,” has given rise to many English words, among which “quiet, quite, quit, acquit, coy, whilom,” and “while.”
Above-ground stone coffin often inscribed or decorated with sculpture.
Ultimately from the Greek sarx, “flesh,” and phagein, “to eat,” referring to the supposed properties of limestone when a corpse is placed in it. Originally sarkophagos, “flesh-eating,” was preceded by lithos, “stone,” but over time lithos got dropped and any old stone coffin became a sarcophagus.
A burial vault or receptacle for the dead.
Winding down from Old French which took it from the past participle of the Latin verb sepelre, “to bury the dead.”
An under officer of a church who is a Jack-of-All-Trades for the place including keeping the priest happy, maintaining vestments, ringing bells, being the janitor, digging the graves, and maintaining the graveyard.
Coming to us from Anglo-Latin, it’s a synonym for “sacristan,” both of which derive from the latin word for “sacred,” sacer; whence, of course, “sacred” itself.
A cloth used to wrap a body for burial; a winding sheet.
From an Anglo-Saxon word, scrud, “garment, cloth,” it also survives in English as “shred.”
The excess dirt left after an excavation, in this case a grave.
From the Middle English spoilen, “to plunder”; ultimately from the Latin spolium, “booty.”
An upright slab or pillar carrying an inscription or sculpted design, serving as a marker or commemorative tablet. In architecture it often incorporated into the facade design of a building.
From the Greek with the same spelling and meaning; ultimately from the Indo-European *sta- "to stand, set down, make or be firm" From whence, among others, the suffix “-stan,” as in “Pakistan”; “-stan” being the place where one stands.
A poem or song of mourning.
From the Greek thrnos, “lament,” and aoid, “song.”
Various senses of being a place for the dead or a monument commemorating them.
From the Greek through Lower Latin through French to English it’s been spelled similarly and meant the same. Perhaps related to the Latin tumulus, “mound.”
A container into which cremated remains are placed, made, usually, of metal, wood or stone.
From the Latin urna of the same meaning.
A burial chamber underground or partly so, including in meaning the outside metal or concrete casket container, as well.
In a bit of allusion, the Indo-European word for “to roll,” wel-, obtained the sense of arching, as in during a roll, and then into a thing which has an arch; in this case the arch over the tomb (could have been over the bank). Some other words out of the wel- include, “waltz, willow, wallow, revolve, valley, volume, evolve, vulva, covering,” and “womb.”
A watch kept over the deceased, possibly lasting the entire night preceding the funeral.
One has to be awake to keep watch at a wake, all of those words coming from the Indo-European weg-, “strong, lively.” As well as “vigilante, reveille,” and “velocity.”
A sheet for wrapping a corpse; a shroud.
From the sense of winding a cloth around the body.