From its beginnings the parish church was set in about two acres of the gentle hillside surrounding it. If any gravestones or other memorials were erected in the early days of the church, any of these from before 1660 have not survived. Indeed even the few known seventeenth-century stones which still decorate the churchyard only exist today because their original inscriptions spent much of their time hiding their words from the weather, and from public view.
It would appear that at some period in the early nineteenth century a few large stones were recycled by being laid face down on the earth, possibly to foil grave robbers and certainly to present a clean surface for a later stone mason to carve a totally new inscription on the reverse. At some more recent time these headstones were re-erected in a vertical position to disclose their more ancient inscriptions.
Almost all of the stones in Donaghadee’s churchyard are simple tablets, the earliest being of local Scrabo sandstone or Castle Espie limestone, the later of slate and eventually of harder imported stones like granite or marble. A large proportion of them have unpretentious pictorial decorations, usually at the top. Many have doves of peace, laurel wreaths, olive branches or ivy leaves. There are representations, not too botanically correct, of a variety of flowers. Many have geometrical designs, usually inscribed with engraving compasses. Eighteen have anchors, ten have Masonic set squares and dividers, three have coats of arms, two have trumpeting angels and two have a skull and crossbones motif on their faces.
Although it is the Church of Ireland which dominates the churchyard, the burial ground itself seems always to have been recognized as the last resting place for any citizens of the civil parish of Donaghadee, an area encompassing about twenty square miles, mostly to the south and west of the town itself.
In a town and hinterland so predominantly Presbyterian, such a system would almost have been inevitable. From the inscriptions on the stones it is an impossible job to determine what the religions of those commemorated really were. The mathematics of the different church registers of members makes it nearly certain that the great majority would have been Presbyterians from the earliest days of the churchyard. The evidence from the stones themselves tells us that in the churchyard are ten recorded burials of clergymen, from at least three local churches, so we have some indication of the community nature of the churchyard.
If some Presbyterians, Methodists or Roman Catholics chose to be buried elsewhere, or whose markers have disappeared, this is also the case with the Anglicans. A random sample of names taken from a surviving list from the Donaghadee parish register of those buried between 1771 and 1841 produces very few whose inscriptions can be found today.
Like many settlements of both the living and the dead which have evolved over centuries, Donaghadee Churchyard displays very little evidence today of planning or organization, except that the older stones tend to be close to the church building and the newer stones towards the periphery. Local evidence suggests that a number of the earliest burials were so close to the Seventeenth century church that later developments discovered unknown and unmarked remains during building and repair work.
All through the twentieth century the care and order of the densely-packed churchyard was the responsibility of a series of sextons from the Harpur family. These men performed excellent work, but their records, like those of their predecessors, were kept mainly in their heads. At the end of the century an attempt was made to draw accurate plans of the churchyard and record all the known graves on these, but this work was never published.