Potter’s field— a burial place for the “unknown, unclaimed, or indigent,” according to its original definition. A term birthed from the bible, from the book of Matthew— it translates in aramaic to akeldama, or field of blood. It is thought that the English phrase translated to potter’s field because the original site referenced in the bible, before it was deemed a burial ground, was a place where Jerusalem’s potters collected their highest quality, deep red clay for the production of ceramics. The land was no good for building, and thought to already have holes from all the digging, thus perfect for burials. Can you imagine this clay earth? Soft and red, easy to sculpt into cups and bowls, jugs and vases. The first place recorded in the Judeo-Christian tradition to bury those society has deemed anonymous was also the place with the richest, most mineral-dense earth.
I began one of my feverish internet searches on Friday night after learning that Covid victims who had not been claimed by loved ones after two weeks were being buried in New York City’s very own potter’s field, on Hart Island— a mile long strip of land in the East River off the Bronx where, since the Civil War, over one million of the city’s dead have been laid to rest in mass graves. As I read about the island, squinting at antique photographs of Rikers inmates stacking hundreds of pine wood caskets inside deep trenches, I felt a portal open to the crises of decades past: AIDS. Tuberculosis. Spanish Flu. Slain soldiers. Our current Covid victims are being laid to rest side by side with victims of past pandemics and wars, and with those fallen as a result of ongoing crises and tragedies: the stillborn, in their miniature wooden boxes small as parcels, and the homeless and the “unclaimed,” those the city has carelessly and often wrongly assumed have no next of kin. In addition to being a potter’s field, the island was used for those quarantined, institutionalized, addicted, for prisoners of war held captive, and as a training ground for black soldiers fighting for the north in the Civil War. It’s a lot of history for a single mile to hold, and its stories are largely untold.
Most consider it an offense to be buried on Hart Island, an outright indignity, and it is true that the island holds a mirror to our society’s deep systemic injustice. A brutal class system that leaves people in their final hour without a penny to their name. A hospital that never bothered to contact a daughter or an ex-husband, a brother or a cousin, or that snatched a lifeless baby away before the mother had a chance to figure out what to do. A society that has allowed so many to go without shelter, or decent mental health support. Adding to the indignity is the fact that island was, until recently, owned by the Department of Corrections, functioning more like a high security prison than a cemetery. Riker’s inmates, forever un-included in minimum wage standards, were paid 50 cents an hour to dig the mass graves, and visitors were scantly allowed. Yet perhaps our idea of what constitutes an honorable burial, our cemeteries full of marked graves with their dates and names, is really just a fight against the inevitable. It is our last plea for individualism, to feel the significance of the little “I,” when the truth is, we all dissolve, returning to the same organic matter. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
Without the preservative chemicals and metal caskets of the funeral-home burial popular in the West, those buried on Hart Island have the chance to decompose naturally. Indeed, every 25 years, more space is opened up in the mass graves as human remains and their wooden boxes crumble completely. I learned that under the right conditions, even bones will successfully compost. As the body is exposed to water, insects, air, and soil, bacteria and fungi will invade the porous networks and break them down over time. I see no offense, but rather a relief, in this total communion with earth’s matter. I keep thinking of the deep sense of peace some of the inmates described while being on the island. They cited osprey nests, geese, goslings, and a multitude of other bird species, not to mention raccoons, and even deer that skirted over when the East River sound was frozen. Most of the island’s abandoned buildings have become wildlife habitats for our fellow members of the animal kingdom. I think there is some comfort in the fact that the land takes us back in so generously.
Yet, this consoling eco-image doesn’t mean the dead don’t require tending to by their living counterparts. Whether or not you believe in spirits or communication with ancestors, I believe there are ways to understand this. Simply put, untold stories deserve telling, and if their complete telling is not possible, they deserve to be somehow honored. The stories of those buried on Hart Island need stoking, even if we are not related by blood. I never liked the word stranger. It creates otherness through its very definition. What if we, as citizens of this city, adopted collective responsibility for our untended dead?
I don't mean legal responsibility— though that fight is being played out, and is heading in the right direction, with the Parks Department soon taking over the island and working on improving accessibility to the public. I’m talking about spiritual responsibility, or if that word doesn’t sit right with you, creative responsibility. What if we claimed these one million stories as a city, and took in the individuals of Hart Island as our own to remember? A poetry teacher once told me that you never want your reader to have the feeling when you write about something tragic, that you were hungry for material. But I knew when this search overtook me to learn more about the island, it wasn’t about finding a compelling writing topic. It was about unfinished business— about singing for those who can no longer sing.
As the earth of Hart Island is tilled once again to make space for Covid victims who have not been reconnected with family, the stories of the island’s dead are asking to be known. I see no better way to do this than an ongoing artistic vigil on the island. Musicians composing scores, dancers and poets snaking memories through the grasses, ritualists opening portals with scents and recitations, researchers uncovering lost stories, muralists bringing faces to life. Perhaps this is a reminder for me, and for many of us, in terms of seeing the connection between how we treat our most marginalized dead, and the extent with which we value life itself. I believe our potter’s field is ready for the ceramicists to return. The clay is soft and red, and it has been waiting a long time to be touched, to be worked on, to be molded into something worthy of praise and celebration.