There’s a new chapter in the story of the mass graves of the unknown poor men, women and children on Hart Island. This small island accessible only by boat off the shore of the Bronx holds New York’s Potter’s Field. It’s back in the news as the grave site for poor and unclaimed victims of COVID-19. In recent weeks the number of burials have increased from an average of 25 per week to as high as 120 per week.
Until recently Hart Island was tended by the jurisdiction of the Department of Correction. Rikers Island jail inmates were paid 50 cents an hour to bury the dead. Over a million people have been buried here since the U.S. Civil War, including thousands of victims of past epidemics like the flu of 1919 and AIDS.
Many of those buried here came from families too poor to claim the body for private burial. And many who are buried here died because they were poor, some of the 700 people who die every day in the US because of poverty. When CHIP began providing health insurance to all pregnant women in 1997, the number of infants and stillborn babies buried on Hart Island dropped from one half to one third of annual internments, a heartbreaking measure of unnecessary loss prior to that coverage due to lack of health insurance. The large number of victims of COVID-19 being laid to rest in Potter’s Field further point to the inequality and racism that are hitting poor communities particularly hard.
In 2004 the Poverty Initiative (now Kairos Center) at Union Theological Seminary joined with Picture the Homeless to celebrate the life of homeless organizer Louis Haggins who was buried on Hart Island’s Potter’s Field. As Amy Gopp points out, potter’s fields have a biblical origin (Matthew 27:10). The liturgy honoring Haggins reveals how the potter’s field of the Bible exposes the injustice of inequality and poverty at the hands of the Pontius Pilates of Jesus’ time and today.
We are currently witnessing the indignities and deadly consequences of a cruelly unjust healthcare and poverty-producing world economic system, which have been greatly aggravated by the present COVID-19 pandemic. Today leaders out of the emerging struggles of the poor and dispossessed in the United States have come together to declare and carry out the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. The Campaign has committed itself to a massive organizing drive to unite the poor and dispossessed with the objective of building a broad and powerful social movement to abolish all economic and social injustices —all human indignities. We are committed to ending a system that denies dignity to God’s children in death what it has also denied to them in life.
Below is Amy Gopp’s original post following her Masters of Divinity thesis project at Union Theological Seminary, including the 2004 memorial service.
“With All Due Respect”: A Potter’s Field Memorial
By Amy Gopp
References to potter’s fields are common in popular culture, especially Hart Island in New York City, where the poor are dumped in anonymous, mass graves. The Biblical potter’s field mentioned in Matthew 27 is constructed with the money that Judas got for selling Jesus out to the chief priests (as described in chapter eight). It is set up on land useless for agricultural production and therefore only good as burial ground for the poor and foreigners (Matthew 27:10). The potter’s field in Matthew is no great contribution or aid to the poor, nor is it a cure for the lack of dignity that the impoverished face.
In Matthew 27:6-10, the donation of land for burying foreigners and the poor, made by Judas and the Temple elite, further isolates the poor from others in society — on a field of blood. Yet, as is clear from the continuing use of such burial sites, Matthew 27:10 has been used to condition the establishment of potter’s fields across the U.S. and the world. The gospel story in Matthew becomes one more pericope used to justify the idea that God and religion condone the dispossession and discrimination faced by poor people. However, similar to the work they have done with other texts of terror, poor people are taking note of the negative impact of this history of interpretation and positing their own interpretations of the text.
The donation of land for burying foreigners and the poor, made by Judas and the Temple elite, further isolates the poor from others in society — on a field of blood.
Picture the Homeless, an organization of poor and homeless people organizing for housing and dignity in New York City, wrote a memorial service liturgy for one of their co-founders who was buried in the potter’s field. Louis Haggins died homeless on the subway six months before his friends or family were able to learn he was buried in the potter’s field on Hart Island, along with more than 800,000 other people. They are buried in unidentified mass graves with 100 adults or 1,000 children to a grave. Their families and friends have limited (if any) access to visit the island (and never the actual grave site) because the potter’s field is run by the Department of Corrections. Prisoners bury the indigent dead; many do so with great care because they realize the potter’s field may be where their own bodies are left to rest. And for most of its history, no memorial services were allowed for those buried there.
In 2004, Picture the Homeless and the Poverty Initiative held Louis Haggins’s memorial service in James Chapel at Union Theological Seminary. They wrote their own interpretation of Matthew 27 that compared their situation to that of the poor in the Bible. In a midrash of Matthew 27, homeless leaders connected the Temple elites who conspire to execute Jesus to the homeless shelters, HMOs, and other institutions which are complicit in the poverty and death of the poor today. They connected Pontius Pilate, the governor who oversaw the crucifixion of Jesus, to the New York Police Department, the Metropolitan Transit Authority, and the Department of Corrections who are responsible for depositing the bodies of the poor and indigent in the potter’s field. They connect Jesus’s innocence with the innocence of poor people dying from poverty today. They critique the banks, real estate companies, multinational corporations and even charitable organizations for making their profits on the backs of the poor and dispossessed.
The process of making and giving this liturgy was the beginning of Picture the Homeless’s Potter’s Field Campaign. In 2005, Picture the Homeless and Interfaith Friends of Potter’s Field, who held their first meeting at Union Theological Seminary, hosted by the Poverty Initiative, organized and won the right to hold bi-monthly observances on Hart Island. These services have continued bi-monthly until today. To participate in and learn more about Picture the Homeless, check out their website.