Cleveland’s potter’s field cemetery17,000 graves
Here is information about graves for indegent in Cuyahoga County Ohio (Cleveland)
Putting indigent souls to rest in Cleveland's Potter's Field
James F. SweeneyPlain Dealer Reporter
Highland Hills-They dig the graves on Thursday mornings.The backhoe leaves Cleveland's Highland Park Cemetery and rumbles east on Chagrin Boulevard, then south on Green Road to an unmarked entrance north of Harvard Road.It follows a narrow curved drive through Potter's Field, the burial ground for the county's indigents.While the backhoe digs, funeral director Francis Corrigan arrives at a maintenance building at Highland Park, carrying the bodies and paperwork in a van. He follows a city flatbed truck to Potter's Field, where workers shift the caskets from the van to the truck.
The caskets are made of flakeboard, a siding material made of wood scraps, sawdust and glue. A white cardboard wrap held in place by black plastic straps covers the tops and sides of the caskets. The name of the deceased is scrawled on the cardboard.The truck backs up to the graves, and workers lift the caskets out. They lower them into the ground with long straps, bracing themselves against the wooden planks that frame the grave. Then the backhoe fills in the holes.
The backhoe isn't needed on days when there is only an infant to bury. The caskets of stillborns are not much bigger than shoe boxes, and workers dig the 2-foot-deep graves with a shovel.There are no hymns, prayers or flowers. Mourners are not allowed at Potter's Field. Only the gravediggers are in attendance.
That's the way it was Oct. 24 when Oscar Hamilton joined more than 17,000 others who are buried in this little-known plot of land.Oscar Hamilton was buried as he lived, leaving barely a trace.Born in 1922 in Tennessee, he worked at an aluminum foundry on Cleveland's East Side until it closed in the late 1970s.He was known as "Fats" along Cedar Avenue, where he lived in a succession of apartments. Apparently an only child, he never married and never had children, said friend Tommie Gideons Jr.
In 1999, Hamilton moved into a public housing tower on East 61st Street. Gideons often visited his friend but said Hamilton showed less and less interest in life outside his apartment."Basically, I think my friend just gave up because he didn't want to do anything," Gideons said.He was admitted to St. Vincent Charity Hospital in September and died there Oct. 19 of a perforated intestine. He was 80. He had no money and no family. Gideons was the only one to attend his no-frills viewing at a funeral home.Hamilton was buried in Potter's Field, Lot 7, Tier 7, Grave 10, one in a row of unmarked graves.He was typical of those buried around him: poor and alone.
The underage drinkers who leave beer cans in the shrubbery that dots Potter's Field might not even know they are in a graveyard. There are no mausoleums or grave markers of any kind, except for thin stakes to show where the most recent graves are dug.The only thing marking it as a graveyard is a 6-foot-high boulder on a stone base. Its bronze plaque is inscribed with a Bible verse, John 14:27: "Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you, let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid." A bouquet of plastic blue roses lies at the foot of the boulder.
Another Bible verse gave Potter's Field its name. The Gospel of Matthew describes what happened after Judas Iscariot betrayed Jesus for 30 pieces of silver. Horrified at what he had done, Judas threw the money into the temple before hanging himself."And the chief priests took the silver pieces, and said, it is not lawful for to put them into the treasury because it is the price of blood. And they took counsel, and bought with them the potter's field, to bury strangers in."
Cleveland's first Potter's Field was a section of Erie Street Cemetery, the city's oldest existing graveyard. It then moved to Woodland Cemetery and then, in 1919, to the southeast corner of Highland Park Cemetery in what was then Warrensville Township.
Though considered a part of Highland Park Cemetery, the properties are not connected, and Potter's Field has its own unmarked and unguarded entrance. In 1932, the city designated it as Memorial Park, but the Potter's Field name stuck.Some people think the city should do more to commemorate those buried here.Grace Carroll was a hospice worker five years ago who wondered what happened to poor patients after they died. She visited Potter's Field with friends.
"They thought it was kind of spooky, but I found it very compelling and sacred," she said. "I was overwhelmed with sadness. We all walked around quietly, and I remember thinking I wish I could know who was here."She told the Rev. Donald Dunson, an associate professor at St. Mary's Seminary in Wickliffe and a volunteer at the West Side Catholic Center. Like Carroll, he thinks he knew people buried here."You know when they stopped coming [to the West Side Catholic Center] that they moved to another city or moved to Potter's Field," he said.He visits once a season and prayed there on All Saints Day.Dunson and Carroll would like to see something done with the field but have a hard time expressing what would be fitting.
"Don't you think there could be a marker marking this as Cleveland Holy Gardens, marking this as holy ground?" Dunson said.Said Carroll: "You could . . . I don't know. Some way of acknowledging that this is holy ground where our fellow human beings rest."
Regardless of whether the city ever does more than mow the grass and pick up trash, Matthew Joyce will continue to hold spiritual gatherings at Potter's Field the day before Easter.The Holy Saturday gatherings were begun in the mid-1980s by his late father, Tom, a social activist. Several dozen people meet there each year to pray, meditate, light candles and plant flowers. Joyce said he doesn't think he knows anyone buried there, but it doesn't matter."I guess it's just a way of having some spiritual connection, letting them know they counted," he said.
Linda Waugh was born in 1967 in Huntington, W.Va. The family moved to Cleveland about 20 years ago. Linda married a Cleveland man in 1987. They had three sons. He gave her AIDS, said Linda's younger sister, Cindy Nerantzoulis. "Her life started falling apart," Nerantzoulis said.Linda got divorced in 1990 and got custody of the boys. But her drug use kept her in frequent trouble with the law.In 1993, she was shot in the leg and sent to prison for robbery. Linda's mother took the boys but had a heart attack and gave them to their father's sister to raise.
Linda was paroled in 1998 but went back to prison in 2000 for drug possession.Linda lived with an older man, also from West Virginia. They stole together, did drugs together and were arrested together.Through it all, the sisters kept in touch, Nerantzoulis said.
"We weren't close, but we talked every holiday. We knew we were family," she said.Last year, Linda and her boyfriend lived in an apartment in East Cleveland, next to a used-car lot where the man worked. He cared for Linda, who died of AIDS Sept. 15 at University Hospitals of Cleveland. When no one claimed her body, she was buried Oct. 31 in Lot 7, Tier 7, Grave 12.
"It's hard when you don't have the money. I'd loved to have done something," said Nerantzoulis, who is divorced and raising five children on her own.Linda's boyfriend died of AIDS Nov. 29. His family paid for him to be cremated.
Potter's Field is serene in its isolation and anonymity. The most frequent visitors are city trucks on their way to a leaf composting site that borders the cemetery. But it's not neglected. The grass is mowed, and the grounds are clean."We take care of these like we do the others," said David Mitchell, manager of city cemeteries. "We don't give them any less attention than we do the others. All graves are treated with respect."
It wasn't always so.City records indicate that as many as three people at a time used to be buried in a vaultless grave. It also looks like gravediggers would reopen those graves after 20 years, when the bodies had decomposed, and add a fourth body. That practice and the fact that many of those buried here have been cremated make it possible to squeeze more than 17,000 remains into 15 acres.Two hundred thirty people were buried in Potter's Field in 1920, its first full year of operation at Highland Park. Burials peaked at 689 during the Great Depression year of 1932. Last year, 56 adults and 27 infants were buried here.
It is not easy to get buried in Potter's Field.It's the rare body that cannot be identified. Undertaker Corrigan and investigators in the coroner's office scour leads and public records to find relatives of the dead. The coroner or MetroHealth Medical Center keeps bodies for weeks while the search is under way.
"What's nice about it is when you actually find family. It's not nice to tell them someone died, but we've had families say, 'Oh, my God, I had no idea they were still in Cleveland,' " said Corrigan, owner of F.J. Corrigan Burial and Cremation Service, a low-cost funeral home in Orange that contracts with the city for indigent burials.Sometimes families step in and bury the dead. Occasionally, they don't."Sometimes they're glad the person is gone," he said. "They burned their bridges with the family, a lot of them."Other families, desperate to avoid the stigma of Potter's Field, spend days trying to raise money from friends and employers for a private burial.
Sometimes the dead pay for their own burial in Potter's Field. With the help of probate court, the city and county can take money from an indigent's bank account or sell property to pay burial expenses.The city had been generous with families asking for indigent burials, but it recently tightened its rules.
"I think the attitude was if the people are desperate enough to ask for it, then they deserved it. But it became apparent that they weren't [indigent] and that some people were taking advantage of it," Corrigan said.
Families can no longer pay the funeral home for such extras as viewing and embalming. The theory is that if they have the money for that, they have the money for a private burial.Corrigan charges $200 to bury infants less than 1 year old and $810 for everyone else. Cremations are $190 for infants and $380 for all others.
Cities are responsible for paying for the burial of their own indigents. Most of the people in Potter's Field are from Cleveland, but Euclid, Lakewood, East Cleveland and other suburbs are well represented. There are some from other counties and states.Cleveland pays for its burials, but Cuyahoga County usually picks up the tab for indigents from the suburbs.Many of the people buried are stillborn infants, who have their own section of Potter's Field, or the elderly. Most of the elderly are men.
The chronicle of the dead - name, date of burial and grave site - is kept in ledgers at Highland Park Cemetery.(On 20906 Chagrin Blvd,Cleveland OH 44122)
John William Grady was a good barber but a bad crimi nal. He spent 16 years in state prison on three sentences, the longest from 1990 to 2001 for robbing a jewelry store in downtown Cleveland.Grady, who cut hair when he wasn't in prison, was 52 when he was paroled in October 2001. He had spent nearly half of his adult life in prison and had his leg amputated there due to diabetes. His parents and only sister were dead.Grady moved in with a friend on East 89th Street and died there of heart disease on Sept. 4, less than a year after getting out of prison. The city contacted an uncle, Roland Somerville, but he and his nephew weren't that close."I gave (the burial) to the city because I hadn't heard anything from him. I couldn't afford to bury him," Somerville said.So the city did, on Sept. 12. Lot 7, Tier 7, Grave 4.
News researcher JoEllen Corrigan contributed to this report.
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© 2003 The Plain Dealer. Used with permission.