I’ve always loved Cemeteries – especially at night – especially if the Cemetery is a Potter’s Field. There is something Stimulating and Macabre about wandering among those graves where the unknown and unwanted are buried. So lets see where the term Potter’s Field comes from. We all immediately recognize the “Thirty Pieces of Silver” as the money Judas received for identifying the Savior to the Roman Guards. And most of us know that he tried to give the 30 pieces back, but the priests refused to take it. He then threw the money on the Temple floor, left and hanged himself.
If we look in the Gospel of Mathew, we find that since the silver was blood-money it could not be used for anything to do with the temple. Here is the scripture (Mathew 27:3-8) that describes what happened. “Then Judas, which had betrayed him, when he saw he was condemned, repented himself, and brought again the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders. Saying, I have sinned in that I have betrayed innocent blood. And they said: ‘what is that to us’ see thou to that. And he cast down the pieces of silver in the temple, and departed, and went and hanged himself. And the chief priest took the silver pieces, and said, it is not lawful for to put them into the treasury, because it is the price of blood. And they took council, and bought with them the potter’s field, to bury strangers in”.
So we see that after Judas was dead the Priests purchased a place for his burial – Potter’s Field. Why that name? Because this original Potter’s Field was where the artisans of that day dug clay to make their pots. Hence Potter’s Field. There are, of course, theories that the atonement and final crucifixion could not have happened without Judas in his role as betrayer – but that is a discussion for another time.
For me, wandering through the cemeteries even in full daylight is very interesting – looking at the dates when someone was born and died, wondering what they died of, what mark they had left on this planet, and viewing the inscriptions on the headstones. Here are a couple of my favorites – “I have fought the good fight. I have finished my course. I have kept the faith.” And,” Flights of angels sing thee to thy rest”.
Let me relate a few of the experiences I have had as a cemetery buff – I’ve been lucky to visit some of the great cemeteries in the world – Genoa, Italy, New Orléans, Sleepy Hollow, Long Island and a few of the thousands of others in every town and city in this country – every community, no matter how small, has a cemetery – a boot hill, a graveyard, a final resting place.
I had a friend who had promised a relative that he would scatter the man’s ashes over the mountains. No problem right? I was invited to go along. We were up at about 12,000 feet when my friend opened the window nearest him into the slipstream. You can guess what happened with the lid off the urn – trying to dump the ashes out the window. They came right back in a grey plume and completely covered us, the pilot, and the entire interior of the cabin. We landed, got a vacuum and sucked the remains of Mr. Guy Roberts into the canister. I’d say we got about 75% of him for the second ride up in the air.
When I was quite young, it was a kick to go through the cemetery on Halloween with my friends, scaring each other speechless along the way. Five of us were in the large Provo, Utah Cemetery wandering around when a huge shadow crossed a large white headstone next to us – as I looked back in rapid flight, I could see it was the shadow of a huge black stallion, at full gallop. We had all started running as fast as we could with an occasional look back to see if anything was chasing us, when David fell into an open grave. In those days they dug the grave a few days before the internment. Sure that he had fallen into the arms of Beelzebub, David was yelling, cursing and crying all at the same time, begging for help. Naturally we, as his good and loyal friends, went back to assist him. Sorry, not likely. We were sprinting as fast as we could for the fence – horse or no horse. David eventually got out but screamed out some rather nasty names for not coming to his aid, and swore never ending vengeance against all of us.
I think I got my fascination with cemeteries and Potter’s Fields from my Dad when I was quite ten years old. We were down in Arizona along the Colorado River on a family vacation. He located an old Cemetery that the military had used. There were sunken area’s defining graves where soldiers and others had been buried back in the 19th Century. He proposed that I accompany him to dig up one of the graves, just to see what had happened after 100 years of a dry climate. I was a little squeamish since some of my father’s other ventures had not turned out particularly well.
There was a full moon and we had shovels, picks and a crow bar – and not wanting any interference, we started about midnight – with just a dim flashlight. After an hour of digging we hit the top of a collapsed coffin five feet down. We carefully removed the dirt until we could see some bones. Every sound made me jump. One leg was missing, but there were military buttons and a ring, all covered in a green tarnish. My Dad proposed that we load the “Colonel” up in a cardboard box and transport him back to Utah.
I showed my friends the remains “a la Tom Sawyer” for a minor charge. But then I did a little research at the library and found that the fine for digging up a body in a military cemetery was $25,000 – statute of limitations to run forever. I convinced my dad that we should give the Colonel a decent burial and be rid of the loathsome thing. I found he later just dumped the whole remains in a sewer trench he was back filling and called it good. We’ll both probably have to answer for that some day.
In 1856 the great famine in Ireland reached its peak, over a million Irishmen died – primarily of starvation. Britain controlled Ireland and dug trenches along the roads so that the indigent could be easily be tossed away unmarked and then the trenches filled. And I believe everyone is aware of the French and also the English having city employees who roved the streets shouting: Bring Out Your Dead” during times of the Plague that wiped out a third of Europe. All of those bodies were tossed into mass graves – Potter’s Fields.
I was in Bombay (now Mumbai) some time ago and I saw corpses laying along the road from the airport. I ask a young Indian girl what happened to these bodies. She pointed to a tall building where vultures circled around the top. She explained that if there was no identification, the bodies were stripped and lain out for the birds to eat on the roof – a religious thing – probably the worst Potter’s Field I have run across.
So what if you are a serious climber and die on a remote mountain – and do not have anyone interested enough in you, or who has enough money to ship you home. One alternative favored is to drop the body into a deep crevasse, so it falls out of sight. Probably to be released from the foot of the glacier in a 1000 years or so after residing in an icy Potter’s Field. That is the practical solution if you are on a high mountain and it’s near impossible to bring the body down. On Aconcagua (22,892 ft) your body is brought down by the climbing rangers (if possible) to the little Potter’s Field at the bottom of the mountain – no markers, nothing to tell people who was buried there. Our guide made sure he took us there before we started the climb – it was sobering to say the least, especially since there were freshly turned graves.
Probably the most famous Potter’s Field in the World is Hart Island in Long Island Sound – with some sign of life for over 200 years – used as a Prison, Woman’s Insane Asylum, Tuberularium, Drug Debilitation and Boys Workhouse over its history. Hart Island is just above and east of City Island in Long Island Sound with the Bronx shore very close due East. Lost souls are buried in 45 of the 105 acres that compose the island, which is a mile long and varies in width from 1/16 of a mile to 1/3 of a mile. The other 60 acres are the remains of broken concrete and decaying buildings, including a 50 foot tower with a Cross on one side and the word Peace on the other. Through most of its history the unknown have been buried in roughly 1100 trenches. Jail inhabitants from Rikers Island now do all the work in disposing of remains – paid at $.50 per hour.
The authorities figure that there are about 850,000 bodies there – growing every day as the inflow comes in from the city’s morgues and hospitals. It is the largest Potter’s Field in the World – unusual because most cities and towns incinerate the remains of the unidentified. At Hart Island in the present day, the caskets are laid right next to each other; twenty-five across and then stacked on top one another two rows high. Babies and small children are five coffins high and twenty across. In the past, remains were dug up and re-used after 25 years, which allowed for sufficient decomposition – sort of turned into new soil to be used as cover for new coffins.
There is also the medical waste stream to deal with – Huh? The medical waste stream is all of the body parts that a hospital or morgue disposes of – say the intestines for a guy who has had a bowel resection or someone who has had a cancerous lung, fingers, toes or even bigger appendages taken. These are categorized and sent to Hart’s Island in boxes – some small, some pretty large – a third of the souls on Hart’s Island are children.
Now I’m going to tell you a story about Hart’s Island – I’m not admitting that I went there or I didn’t go there. I will say that there is a lengthy statute of limitations for trespassers. The island is under the control and supervision of the Department of Corrections – NYC. I’ve lived in New York three different times so you decide whether this happened or not. After hearing stories about Hart Island, I researched it thoroughly and decided I wanted a look – really interesting cemetery. No one is allowed there, so attempting a visit in the daytime could have serious consequences. I ask a couple of friends of mine to come along at night – their joint response was “Are you out of your mind”. So I rented a row boat myself – easy to reach the island in about 30 minutes from the Bronx shore – I didn’t want the noise of an outboard motor or anything else that might alert people that the island had a night visitor.
There is a small pier but it’s only used during the day for a new load of remains. The island inhabitants are the bodies of those who slipped into oblivion with no one to wish them well. I came at one a.m., moonless night, raining softly, no thought of being caught – who else would want to come out there at that time. I felt as if I should have had Edgar Allen Poe sitting along side me.
I quickly rowed to the Island with nervous anticipation. I don’t have much of a belief in zombies, banshees, phantoms, vampires, ghouls or other undead performing necromantic rituals, but I did involuntary shudder as I walked down the dock. I just wanted to feel what it would be like to wander around where almost a million destitute people had reached their final rest. The only markers were row numbers, right next to each other. I had a military flashlight with a narrow beam and I started to go up and down – walking through the remains of 150 years of burials.
I saw my first set of bones sticking out of the mud after just a few minutes, and then a second or so later my feet crunched something underneath – I didn’t look down. Then rotting caskets, then rows and rows of those long gone. Took about a half hour to go across the island. I thought about the 800,000 plus souls that were buried, or in some cases partly buried – I stopped, turned off the light and became completely still, just to see if I could feel the spirits of those indigent souls that were underground or who had returned to the soil as they disintegrated.
At first I couldn’t hear or feel anything, just a heavy silence strained through the soft downfall of rain. Then I began to hear whispers – or so I thought. Those who had been murdered or abandoned or lost – just the faintest of murmurs. “Come Join Us” they seem to say. Those whispers made my neck hair stand straight out even though I was sure they weren’t real, but I started walking back to the pier.
I stopped again and turned off my light one more time. This time the murmurs seem to say “Come With Us”. That was enough for me – I turned on the light and began briskly walking back to the dock – of course I slipped and fell in the mud – on my hands and knees. Dropped the flashlight, the light went out, and I scrambled around in rain trying to find it. Almost had crossed the Island when I saw something through the darkness and rain about 100 yards to my left. It was a figure about six feet tall. Didn’t move, just stood there. It wasn’t any kind of a red-eyed demon with hood and cloak or any other monster. Just a specter, standing silently. I shined my light that direction, but could only see the figure through the rain – just a quiet terror – I couldn’t really see what was there. I was really frightened, frightened enough that I made a bee line for my boat, running as fast as I could with a couple of falls along the way, shaking all the time, not daring to look back.
I grabbed the oars and pulled hard with my head down. Once I was away from the pier, I looked back to the island just to satisfy myself that it was only my imagination some sort of an awake dream. But the figure was still there, and I rowed even faster.
And all those dead, forgotten by everyone, left alone, stacked upon one another – Unknown and Unwanted. I could still feel their presence as I rowed away with all my strength. Was it real or just my nervousness that activated what I heard and saw? It was real to me that night, I know that. And I also know that I’m never going back for a second visit to Harts. So that was the end of my nighttime adventure with a nerve-racking finish that put up tremors in my hands and chills up my spine.
But I sometimes ponder all of those who ended up in a Potter’s Field somewhere. Poor Judas, the climbers at the bottom of a crevasse, and the millions of those buried in Potter’s Fields around the World – and especially the underground residents of Hart Island – no one but the ages to remember or morn them.
While I’m a believer that your soul doesn’t have much to do with your body as you depart this world, I still would like someone to visit my gravesite – hopefully to be remembered with fondness and humor, not forgotten in a Potter’s Field.