[The following article is a partial reprint of “Old Salem’s Strangers’ Graveyard and The Potter’s Field,” an article previously posted on the Winston-Salem Historic Places Examiner page.]
If a homeless man or woman dies on the streets of New York City (or Louisville, for that matter) carrying no identification, and leaving no way to contact family members or past friends, how does the city go about laying that person to rest? This past summer, The Moritz von Bomhard Theater at the historic Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts aired a new documentary –The Potter’s Field– in which director Edward Heavrin and co-director Nick Weis set out to answer that very question.
The documentary takes its name from a common title assigned to strangers’ graveyards which is derived from the opening verses of Chapter 27 in The Gospel of Matthew. Verses 5 through 7 of Matthew 27:5 reveal the aftermath subsequent to Judas Iscariot betraying Jesus for a payment of thirty silver pieces, but –racked with guilt– giving it back: “Flinging the money into the temple, [Judas] departed, and went off and hanged himself. The chief priests gathered up the money, but said, ‘It is not lawful to deposit this in the temple treasury, for it is the price of blood.’ After consultation, they used it to buy the potter’s field as a burial place for foreigners.” Subsequently, “Potter’s Field” has become an oft used phrase to describe a burial place for those with no discernible connections.
Some argue that to create a non-orthodox cemetery, the chief priests of Jesus’s time would have intentionally chosen a piece of land used by a potter. Historians make the case that a parcel of land from which a potter regularly excavated clay would, as a consequence, be too depleted to sustain agriculture, but, conversely, work well for a burial ground. Located in Jerusalem, the specific potter’s field to which The Gospel of Matthew refers –now known as “Akeldama”– literally means “Field of Blood” in Aramaic. Though the name might reference the red color of the clay excavated there, knowing that the land was purchased using so-called “blood money” and that it was used as a burial ground, the name’s origin is open to interpretation.
Heavrin and Weis’s documentary, however, focuses not on Jerusalem’s Akeldama, but, rather, on a program founded in Cleveland, Ohio called The St. Joseph of Arimathea Society, a reference to the saint known for providing Jesus’s tomb and assisting in Jesus’s burial. The society originated at Cleveland’s St. Ignatius High School in 2002, but Heavrin and Weis, in fact, examine an off-shoot of the society formed in Louisville, Kentucky in 2006, as well as Louisville’s Indigent Burial Program, a service coordinated by Buddy Dumeyer, a Deputy Coroner for the city.
The film explains that both The St. Joseph of Arimathea Society and The Indigent Burial Program serve the same end – to provide a dignified burial for homeless men, women, and children, who, otherwise, would receive no funeral and would have no one in attendance as they are laid to rest. Via The Indigent Burial Program, Dumeyer coordinates with The St. Joseph of Arimathea Society and a variety of local high schools, colleges, and funeral homes to provide burial services for homeless who enter the city morgue whose family or friends cannot be located. Dumeyer arranges for volunteer high school and college students to meet at Louisville’s city-run cemeteries to serve as pall-bearers and funeral attendees for the indigent, solitary individuals with whom the Coroner’s Office comes into contact.
Nonetheless, as much service as those two programs provide, The Potter’s Field, however, is just as much an illumination of the aloneness that characterizes homelessness as it is a commendation of those who volunteer their time to lay the homeless to rest. The documentary’s most powerful moments, in fact, are not those filmed in the hearse or at the cemetery, but, instead, one-on-one interviews –which are woven throughout the piece– conducted with homeless men living on the streets of Louisville. While the film certainly highlights the goodness of Dumeyer’s efforts and the volunteers with whom he works, one also sees that impoverished loners continue to wander the streets, and that, without intervention otherwise, they might very well end up the beneficiaries of a potter’s field burial service.
The Potter’s Field is not just a consideration of indigent burial in Louisville, nevertheless. The documentary also takes the viewer to Chicago, Illinois and New York, New York where the phenomenon of homelessness, of course, is an even bigger issue. Some of the footage taken from these larger cities is particularly gut-wrenching in that so many homeless men, women, and children die there that local government agencies have resorted to using mass graves, either placing caskets one atop another, in some instances, or side by side in long trenches. Particularly striking is the revelation in the film that often numerous bodies of babies are all placed in one coffin to save time and materials before they are subsequently interred. Upon seeing this, the value of The St. Joseph of Arimathea Society and Dumeyer’s Indigent Burial Program truly comes to light. One cannot help but think that each individual, in spite of age, deserves –at the very least– his or her own casket, if not someone there to mourn.
For more information about the film, one can visit its Facebook page at www.facebook.com/ThePottersFieldFilm.
• For Examiner.com, I’m Guy Montgomery.
[Enjoy reading about Louisville history, and want to do more? Click the “Subscribe” button at the top of the page to receive updates when new posts are added to the Louisville Historic Places Examiner page. All posts cover history and historic places in, around, and close to Louisville, KY so check in frequently to learn more about historic sites in the area.]