At the northern end of the Old Salem historic district is one of Winston-Salem’s most hallowed pieces of land – The Salem Moravian Graveyard, or, as it is more often called, “God’s Acre.” The name God’s Acre comes from the ancient German designation of “Gottesacker,” which, translated into English, means “Field of God.” The Moravians who settled Salem began laying to rest fellow members of their congregation in God’s Acre in 1771.
As noted by findagrave.com, The Salem Moravian Graveyard is also called at times “The City of the Equal Dead” in that its tombstones “are all flat and are approximately the same size,” and, thus, no person’s headstone calls more attention to itself than does another. Moravian graveyards are also unique in that the faithful departed are laid to rest by “choir,” rather than by family, with one’s “choir” being determined by gender and marital status instead of parents or spouse. Findagrave.com describes the choir system in this way: “[M]arried [men] are buried in a choir and married [women] in another, [whilst] single [men] and single [women] are buried likewise; children are buried together in a [separate choir].”
Nevertheless, The Salem Moravian Graveyard was only used for the burial of Moravian members of European heritage in the congregation. Practicing Moravians of African heritage were laid to rest in a different cemetery at the southern end of Salem, now called, fittingly, “The African-American Graveyard.” Non-Moravians, however, who passed away while visiting Salem where interred in yet a third cemetery – the so-called “Strangers’ Graveyard.” The Strangers’ Graveyard, sometimes also referred to as the “Parish Graveyard,” was used for forty years from the period of 1775 through 1815, and sits adjacent to the present-day St. Philips Heritage Center at the corner of South Church Street and Race Street.
When considering Salem’s historic Strangers’ Graveyard, though, one might begin to wonder where the “strangers” of this day and age are laid to rest in America’s modern cities. If, for example, a homeless man or woman dies on the streets of New York City (or Winston-Salem, 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 Tuesday, The Moritz von Bomhard Theater 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. As for Old Salem’s Strangers’ Graveyard, it is open to visitors, and, as aforementioned, is located just north of the corner of South Church Street and Race Street in the Old Salem historic district. The St. Philips Heritage Center by which it sits is open for tour as part of admission to Old Salem Museums and Gardens, and is open Tuesday through Saturday from nine thirty a. m. until four thirty p. m., and on Sundays from one p. m. until four thirty p. m.. The Salem Moravian Graveyard is open, likewise, to visitors, and is located just north of the Old Salem historic district at 100 Cemetery Street.
• For Examiner.com, I’m Guy Montgomery.
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