Potter's Fields: Who do those unmarked graves belong to?


STOCKBRIDGE — No one wants to think about an unmarked grave, or worse, an unmarked mass grave. But they still exist — and Berkshire County is speckled with them.

Such areas of unidentified interment are predominantly located within or adjacent to town cemeteries. They're called "potter's fields," a reference dating back to the New Testament. Matthew 27:10 describes a guilt-stricken Judas paying 30 silver pieces to bury his former friend, Jesus, in the cheapest place available — a field of clay dirt used by potters and thus chemically unfit for profitable horticulture.

But this burial tradition, popular in the U.S. from the 1850s through the 1960s, does not come to us from Biblical times. Potter's fields emerged in the U.S. after the Colonial era, and were used by towns to bury indigent bodies — the impoverished, unclaimed and unidentified. During this period, those lacking the family or funds to cover burial costs were interred by townsfolk, but often without a headstone.

Stockbridge Cemetery demonstrates Colonial, Victorian and modern burial practices.

"It sounds like potter's fields are a mid-19th century kind of happening. The oldest part of the cemetery was probably used a little before 1750, and they didn't have a potter's field," said former Stockbridge Police Chief Rick Wilcox, who serves as the town's unofficial local historian. "What they did is bury everybody together. There are Native Americans, there are free blacks, and in town records it shows that some people were Irish, but it doesn't show their names. In this whole section, there are 121 unmarked graves. Essentially, there was no potter's field because everyone got taken care of."

This was the burial practice known to our Colonial forebears. Every body was buried together, whether marked or not. The old cemetery ran out of room by 1848, and plans for expanded grounds were drawn. This time, the town set aside a plot marked "Potter's Field" adjacent to the old section. This space, as well as a second potter's field added later, were used until the 1960s when they filled up.

To find the original potter's field in Stockbridge, enter the cemetery through the foot path on Main Street and walk until you spot a blank patch of grass on your left. This is where indigents were buried for over a century. Several weather-worn square markers peek just above the grass, engraved, "101," "68," "35." They likely mark bodies named only in antique town records.

"It's pretty sad that in someone's death they became '101' or '102,'" Wilcox said. "I'm willing to bet that when the welfare offices ceased to exist on a town-by-town basis, but went statewide, that's when they probably stopped doing potter's fields kind of burials. That was around the 1960s."

Stockbridge Library's Museum & Town Archives describe how a penniless local Colonial with no known family could receive full burial, illustrating the difference between Colonial and Victorian burial traditions. He died in 1866, and an erect marble head stone stands in his remembrance between the old cemetery and the potter's field.

"Dr. Joab Kellis, a black physician, lived here in Stockbridge. When he died, the town paid for his casket and burial. He didn't have any family, so the town took care of his final costs," said Joshua David Hall, assistant curator and genealogist at the Stockbridge Library's Museum & Archives Collection. "The town had its own poorhouse. People were charged with making sure people were looked after. I would say it was common practice."

The event is detailed in the 2010 book, "One Minute A Free Woman; Elizabeth Freeman and the Struggle for Freedom" by Emile Piper and David Levinson.

"Joab Kellis ... became the first black physician in Stockbridge. Yet he spent his last years in poverty, boarding with Mary Hull in the 1850s and 1860s, and with the town picking up the costs of his medical care and funeral in 1886."

Southview Cemetery in North Adams houses a larger potter's field, located in its northwest corner. Perhaps a half-acre large, this plot is adorned with a panoply of diverse grave markers, ranging from marble headstones to homemade iron markers to engraved plaques level with the earth. While most of the bodies interred here lay unmarked, many are commemorated with visible shrines.

"There's a lot of love in this area given that people are pretty much buried alone, rather than with the family," said local historian Paul W. Marino. "In 1888, when this cemetery was established, they started a new potter's field here."

Unlike the potter's field in Stockbridge, this one is made colorful by flags and bouquets laid next to manicured grave markers. The upkeep is due to the fact that this potter's field is still in use. A line of short headstones facing the nearest road, made joyous and mournful with floral arrangements, consists of graves from the 1980s and '90s.

Full burials typically cost $2,000 to $4,000, and headstones range in the hundreds. Many bereaved families find financial relief in Southview's potter's field. The town and local funeral homes come together, sometimes with financial aid from the state, to cover burial costs. These bodies receive less lavish burials than those paid in full, but the service lifts an enormous financial burden from the next of kin, who can add a grave marker whenever they're able.

Funeral homes are not forced to bury indigent bodies, an act that amounts to significant charity on their part, but Finnerty & Stevens Funeral Home in Great Barrington coordinates with the town, the state and sometimes out-of-state agencies to help those without means afford a burial.

"It happens all the time in the town of Great Barrington. Probably every couple of months we run into something like this. People get shipped in from all over the place. They have no money, no family. They have nothing," said Funeral Director Dennis Malloy. "We get the call and you have to do something. You can't just sit there. We don't have to do it. We choose to do it."

According to Malloy, Great Barrington goes out of its way to aid in the burial process, although that's among the least pricey parts of a funeral, which also includes bodily preparation and a casket.

"Normally, a grave plot for a resident of Great Barrington is $400, and another $400 to dig the grave itself. If someone has nothing, the town will give $200 and won't charge a grave-opening fee. We're thankful to the town, because they really have no obligation to do that."

Financial aid varies from town to town, state to state. In Massachusetts, those receiving social services are eligible to receive $1,100 from the Department of Transitional Assistance for partial burial costs. Similar corpses in Schenectady County, N.Y., for example, can receive up to $4,000 from the state. In most cases, however, the involved funeral home takes a big financial hit.

"Sometimes we get absolutely no money," Malloy said. This can result in simple burials without headstones. "They might not call them 'potter's fields' anymore, but in certain sections, where the indigents go, there are no markers. The only way to know someone is there is to go to the cemetery office and look up town files."

This means that our local cemeteries hold many unmarked graves. It's important to note, however, that potter's fields are not the only unmarked graves. Many Shakers and Quakers, who up until a certain point, did not mark the graves of the dead. For example, a large section of unmarked graves in the Maple Street Cemetery in Adams, surrounding the meeting house, belongs to the Society of Friends.

If a fear of the cadaverous forbids you from entering graveyards, rest easy. The dead lay all around us.

"The very oldest cemetery in North Adams would be at Fort Massachusetts, which was built in the 1740s. What happened at the fort was part of the French and Indian Wars," Marino said. "The first fatality there was Elisha Nims, shot in the back during a skirmish. He was interred at the fort's burial ground."

Marino draws a direct line to the modern day.

"In the spring of 1858, Professor A.L. Perry, a history professor at Williams College, came over with a group of students and conducted an excavation of the site. The greatest find was the headstone and skeleton of Elisha Nims," he said. "Nims was the first occupant of the burial ground, located 'south and west of the fort,' which would put it under Oriental Buffet."


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