Every industry has its own vocabulary. The cemetery profession is no different. But while you and your staff may be very comfortable with certain terms, they’re not always familiar to the families in your care, especially ones who only interact with you after a loved one has died. It’s important to use language your customers understand, particularly in emotional, at-need situations.
Why Language Matters
Technically correct language is important when drawing up legal documents like contracts and interment rights certificates. But when someone is interacting with a cemetery for the first time, they may not understand some of these terms. If it’s a pre-need conversation, you can take the time to define unfamiliar words and answer any questions. But if someone they loved has just passed away, it’s unlikely that they’re in the best state of mind for a vocabulary lesson. They may be grieving, overwhelmed, emotional, or numb. What they’re probably not is patient. To help them during this difficult time, try to explain everything in simple terms that anyone could understand.
Glossary of Common Cemetery Terms
Below are some common terms used in our profession, and some suggestions on what to use instead when dealing with grieving families. This is also a great list to share with new employees who are working at a cemetery for the first time.
Interment, Inurnment, and Entombment
As you’re aware, the difference in these terms depends on the type of remains and the location where they’re being laid to rest. Interment refers to burying a body in the ground. (Be sure not to accidentally use the word internment, which means to confine someone, like in an internment camp.) Inurnment refers to burying cremated remains in the ground. And entombment refers to laying either a body or cremated remains to rest in an above ground crypt or niche. But most of the general public is unaware of these distinctions. While it’s important to find out whether or not the deceased will be cremated and what type of plot the next of kin is interested in, once you have determined this basic information it’s often best to refer to this process as a burial. Any further nuance is rarely important to a family experiencing a loss.
When planning an interment, you may refer to a canopy – the tent used to cover the casket and provide shade or shelter to the immediate family during a graveside burial. It may be clearer to call this a tent.
These terms are confusing because not even all cemeteries use them consistently. Some use plot and lot interchangeably as synonyms for grave. More often, plot is used as a synonym for grave – a specific site designated for a single set of remains. Lot is often used to identify the location of multiple gravesites which may or may not have been purchased by the same person or family. In most cases, it is best to avoid both these terms if possible. Use resting place, grave, or space instead (or crypt or niche if the deceased will be laid to rest above ground).
To help them during this difficult time, try to explain everything in simple terms that anyone could understand.
Speaking of crypts and niches: though it may be impossible to avoid these terms if someone is looking for above ground resting places, you should be aware that not everyone understands them. Niche in particular may be unfamiliar. A crypt is a sealed enclosure meant for the entombment of a casket. While some European cities are known for their historic underground crypts, most modern day American crypts are found in mausoleums, which are memorials built to hold remains of the dead. A niche is an above ground enclosed space for cremated remains. Most niches are part of a larger columbarium, another unfamiliar word that means a building that houses cremated remains. Columbariums might be part of a larger mausoleum that contains casketed remains as well. When you must use these terms, be sure to explain them fully at first use and be ready to re-explain as necessary.
You know that when someone purchases a plot from you, they receive the right to inter someone there, but they do not technically own that land. That’s why you refer to them as the rights holder, which is legally correct. However, this terminology doesn’t mean anything to most people. Particularly during at-need situations, it’s clearer to refer to the owner of the space.
Deed versus Interment Rights Certificate
Despite the previous distinction, many cemeteries still issue deeds to their rights holders. This is technically incorrect, because the rights holder doesn’t own the land. From a legal perspective, it’s better to issue interment rights certificates. However, the term deed is more widely understood by the general public, and may be the best word to use in conversation.
Whenever possible, it’s best to use the first name of the person who’s passed away instead of the less personal the deceased or decedent. This conveys respect and acknowledges their loved one as a person and not a business transaction. Although the deceased or decedent is technically correct, to a grieving family the term may come across as callous and insensitive.
Choosing the Right Language for the Situation
There are times when it’s most important to be specific and legally accurate, and other times when it’s more important to be clear and sensitive to a grieving family’s needs. Of course all legal documents should use proper terminology, which you should be prepared to define if questions arise. Your website may be a gray area. While you want it to be understandable to the general public, you may also need to get specific about interment, inurnment, and entombment options. One solution is to create a glossary of all potentially unfamiliar terms and link to it whenever these words first appear on a page. That allows you to be accurate and specific without causing confusion. But when interacting with families coping with a recent loss, it’s important to speak their language and explain what they need as clearly as possible so as not to overwhelm them further during a difficult time.