When graves went for 30 pieces of silver

By | May 27, 2012

Milwaukee’s cemetery, along with most such cemeteries, is also known as “Potter’s Field.”


The original Potter’s Field lies in Jerusalem. It dates back to the time of Christ, and was used until the early part of the 19th century for the burial of non-Jewish visitors. The site is at the base of Mount Zion, near the Mount of Olives. Some sources also link the valley to the location of Gehenna, a garbage heap known for constantly burning fires.

Another name for that field in Jerusalem is “the Field of Blood” or Akeldama in Jesus’ native tongue of Aramaic.

We know of the place because we are told that it is where Judas Iscariot died. In the Acts of the Apostles, Peter tells of Judas taking the money he received for betraying Jesus and buying the parcel of land. Then, “falling headlong, he burst open in the middle and all his insides spilled out. This became known to everyone who lives in Jerusalem, so that the parcel of land was called in their language ‘Akeldama’, that is, Field of Blood” (Acts 1:18-19).

Matthew’s Gospel tells a slightly different version: that when Judas regretted his betrayal and threw the 30 silver pieces into the Temple, the chief priests took the money but would not put it into the Temple treasury because it was “the price of blood.” So they “used it to buy the potter’s field as a burial place for foreigners” (Mt 27:4-10).

The same area appeared in the Old Testament when the prophet Jeremiah (chap. 18) visited a potter who lived there and the Jewish Encyclopedia notes that there is still red clay dug in the region that is used for potting. The clay is dark red in color and that hue might have contributed to the field’s name as well.

Today, there is a small Greek Orthodox convent of nuns on the site, dedicated to St. Onuphrius, a fourth century monk.

As we celebrate Memorial Day, originally called Decoration Day, we honor our war dead. It is also a day when many people visit local cemeteries and decorate the graves of all their dead relatives and friends.

Potter’s Field on Hart Island in New York was purchased in 1869 and used in 1870 to isolate victims of the yellow fever epidemic. Many died there and it was the job of inmates housed in the correctional facility on the island to bury the dead. There was also a Civil War cemetery on Hart Island, but it was moved in 1941, according to the New York Department of Corrections. These same records show that — in the 1960s — there were 600,000 burials on Hart Island, approximately two-thirds of them infants and stillborn. Because of the number of dead, they were buried three deep. Until 1960, a separate Catholic cemetery existed on Hart Island.

On the opposite U.S. coast, the San Francisco Genealogical Society notes that Golden Gate Cemetery, also known as Potter’s Field, was located on land that is now the Lincoln Park Golf Course and also the site of the California Palace of the Legion of Honor. From about 1868 to 1908, it was the burial site for the indigent, several ethnic societies and for the Chinese who had come to work in the gold mines and on the railroad. In the early 20th century, the municipal government had requested the transfer of bodies from the cemetery, however, a 1993 Los Angeles Times article noted that several hundred Gold Rush era bodies had been unearthed during excavation for a museum expansion.

This attests to the sad state that many graves in Potter’s Field-type cemeteries are poorly marked, or not marked at all. After all, these are the unknown or unwanted dead.

In the Green Bay area, Allouez Catholic Cemetery has been the site of the burial of unclaimed dead since the 1940s. Steve Gooding, administrator, said Allouez Catholic Mausoleum houses a crypt that currently holds 55 “unclaimed cremated remains.” He added that there were 15 others in the crypt, but these “have been claimed by loved ones” during the last two years.

“A heartwarming note to an otherwise sad story,” Gooding said.

One of the corporal works of mercy is to bury the dead. As we approach Memorial Day, we might help in that work of mercy by praying for all the forgotten dead, using this traditional prayer or one like it:

“O merciful God, take pity on those souls who have no particular friends and intercessors to recommend them to thee … May the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.”

Sources: catholic.org; “The Catholic Encyclopedia;” Allouez Catholic Cemetery and Mausoleum; the San Francisco Genealogical Society; the Jewish Encyclopedia; Milwaukee County Online Genealogical Society; Milwaukee County Historical Society; www.bryantpark.org; City of New York Department of Corrections; “Easton’s Bible Dictionary;” Israeli Antiquities Authority; and www.goisrael.com

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