State-funded Funerals: What Happens to the Unclaimed Dead?

potter's fields
Dunn County's Potter's Field was the final resting place for many people who spent time at the Dunn County Asylum for the Chronic Insane, and the poor in Dunn County Wisconsin. Wikimedia Commons

How do cities deal with the bodies of the unclaimed dead, including the homeless, unidentified and unknown? Cities have always had a protocol for making sure everyone — even the nameless and faceless — has an eternal resting place.

In biblical times, and before refrigeration or embalming, the dead had to be buried as quickly as possible, says cemetery writer Loren Rhoads. All bodies went into the same burial ground. "If you were part of the community, [you were] buried together," she says. "If you were a stranger or traveling through or whatever, you got the outskirts of the burial ground." That practice continued into Medieval Europe.


Cemeteries started taking shape in the 1620s in New Amsterdam, a Dutch settlement that eventually became New York City. Burial grounds at churches there designated separate land for strangers. Rhoads says these New Amsterdam cemeteries are the first accounts she has found in the United States of potter's fields — burial places for people who remained unclaimed, usually because they were unidentified or didn't have enough money for a cemetery plot.

"They were drawing a distinction between the people that belonged and the people that didn't belong," says Rhoads, whose latest book is "199 Cemeteries to See Before You Die."


History of Potter's Fields

In a potter's field, the city paid for the burial of the dead. The term originates from the Gospel of Matthew, part of the New Testament, when the high priests of Jerusalem paid for a burial place for strangers and the poor.

"When the city buries you, they bury you at the least possible expense, and so the grave isn't all that deep. The coffin's not very nice. If there's a marker, it's the cheapest possible marker," Rhoads says. "So anybody who could afford it would choose to be buried in a cemetery rather than potter's field."


Every city had a potter's field, but many details and laws rely on the given place. In some cities, the wait until a person was buried depended on something as mundane as the cabinetmaker's schedule, Rhoads says. Cremation wasn't popular, so everyone was buried. The cabinetmakers also worked as coffin makers, so a burial happened as soon as they could finish a coffin.

In other places, cities skipped the coffin and instead wrapped bodies in a sheet, though that changed around the mid-19th century. Most cities switched from burying their dead in potter's fields to cremating bodies by the mid-20th century. Today, almost every city in the U.S. cremates unclaimed people, and potter's fields burials have fallen out of use. "It's a whole lot cheaper to put an urn on a shelf than it is to bury a body," Rhoads says.

However, New York City is rare. To this day, the city ferries unclaimed bodies in pine coffins to Hart Island, an uninhabited island with a potter's field of more than 1 million people.

Cities have deals with local funeral homes to handle unclaimed bodies, Rhoads says. After cremation, every city has different rules for how it handles remains. Los Angeles County stores them for three years and buries them in a mass grave if they go unclaimed.


Tracking Down the Dead

Finding people in potter's fields can get tricky. Cities don't usually pay for markers, so potter's fields are mostly filled with unmarked graves. If you think you know someone who might be buried by the city, Rhoads advises you go to the city and request the death certificate, which should say where the body ended up if the city handled it. Some of those records are online.

Of course, you first have to know where a person died. "[People] move around so much now. Just because you knew they lived in a city at one point doesn't mean that that's where they stayed," she says. And if a person dies without identification, that can easily create a situation where a city ends up with a Jane or John Doe.


"It's really easy to slip through the cracks if you're elderly and if you have a heart attack on the street or something like that, or if somebody robs your body and you've never been arrested or fingerprinted," Rhoads says. "It's really hard for them to know who you are, unless somebody can recognize you."

At the potter's field in New York City, the Hart Island Project strives to create a map and listing of the 67,004 people buried there since 1980.


Cemeteries On Shaky Ground

Not unlike other cemeteries across the country, potter's fields also speak to the shaky ground that cemeteries are built on — literally. Many potters' fields have been moved or have had other structures built on top of them in the name of progress, Rhoads says. Even cemeteries full of markers have met this fate. In New Orleans, two of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome's parking garages sit atop an old Protestant cemetery, the remains removed and relocated. Graves and remains were also moved in Fremont, California, in the San Francisco Bay Area, for a new housing tract.

"We think of cemeteries as permanent and monumental, and they're not," Rhoads says. "They're really fragile, and all it takes is an earthquake or a hurricane, and the monuments are all damaged and they're really expensive to repair. It's easier to take them down than to fix them, and that history is just lost."