Poor people not wanted in cemeteries

By: Justin Nobel | Date: Mon, July 27th, 2009

Putting the poor to rest in a sanctioned spot is common practice across the United States.

Illinois will stop paying for the burial the poor, a practice that dates back to biblical times. The first potter's field was Haceldama, a cemetery in the Valley of Hinnom, outside the Old City of Jerusalem whose name means “field of blood.What happens when a bum dies? Most states bury them, but last month, Illinois announced it no longer has the money to do so. The state’s Department of Human Services pays for about 10,000 burials a year, at a cost of $15 million.

New York Cities’ indigent are buried on an island by prisoners from a nearby jail who get paid 25-35 cents an hour for their labor; Cleveland’s poor are laid to rest in a mown field surrounded by forest and many of New Orleans’ poor end up in Holt Cemetery, where bodies are actually buried underground (uncommon in New Orleans, which sits below sea-level) and decorated with planter boxes and bed frames.

Graveyards of the poor and criminal are known as potter’s fields and date back to Haceldama, a cemetery in the Valley of Hinnom, outside the Old City of Jerusalem, whose name means “field of blood.”

According to the Bible, when the traitorous Judas turned himself into the chief priests he threw down 30 pieces of silver. The money was regarded as tainted and rather than be accepted directly by the church, it was used to purchase a plot of land for the burial of strangers. From the accounts of St. Peter, Judas was one of the first occupants:

“He [Judas] indeed hath possessed a field of the reward of iniquity, and being hanged, burst asunder in the midst: and all his bowels gushed out. And it became known to all the inhabitants of Jerusalem: so that the same field was called in their tongue, Haceldama, that is to say, the field of blood.”

The term potter’s may have been used because potters came there for clay; the phrase stuck.

In Rome, the potter’s field was on the side of a hill. According to a website on Ancient Rome, large pit graves contained, “the friendless poor, plague-infected bodies, dead animals, road kill, abandoned slaves, arena victims, criminal outcasts, and unidentified bodies.” The stench was unbearable and the site became a source of disease. The Roman Emperor, Augustus Caesar, designated a new potter’s field and buried the original one under 25 feet of soil. He renamed it Horti Maecenatis, the Garden of Maecanas.

Most graveyards today are manicured and open to the public but some potter’s fields still remain inaccessible. New York City’s Hart Island is operated by the city’s Department of Correction and accessible only to those who can prove they have family buried there. With arcane records, this is difficult but a savvy multimedia project is in the process of creating a database for all Hart’s graves. The Hart Island Project also contains fascinating historical information and original documents.

One letter is from a prisoner who worked at Hart’s digging graves, only to realize his younger sister was amongst the dead. It is a poignant reminder to the state of Illinois about the injustice of improperly burying the dead, even the poor sister of a prisoner:

My name is Eddie Melendez. This job is something new to me because when I first come to heart island it was just a job to me. But when I found out that my baby sister was buried here it hurt me because she didn’t get a proper burial for I can pay my respects and now when I bury a baby I think of my sister. I feel that they should put a memorial plaque for all the children’s and people that are buried here. For the people in the city can all see the people buried here.”

One thought on “Poor people not wanted in cemeteries”

  1. Pat Cole

    I am very upset that people do not want to recogmize that there is a Potters Field in cemeteries. In Ordway, Colorado there is a corner that is for poor and indigent people and some of the old ladies in Ordway and the Ordway Town Council do not want a sign saying that it is Potters Field. There is at least 20 people buried there according to the cemetery records at the Ordway, Colorado Town Hall. There was a sign there and the Ordway Town Council had the Ordway Town Crew take it down and the post that it was on.

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