The Forgetting Place

Tragic lives end in quiet solitude at Cleveland's potter's field.

The potter's field boasts no sign or gravestones, only a single stone marker - inscribed with a Bible verse. - Walter  Novak
The potter's field boasts no sign or gravestones, only a single stone marker inscribed with a Bible verse.
In the paupers' graveyard, the fallen snow stays perfect for a long time. This bothers Father Don Dunson, who would like to see at least a few footprints mussing the white blanket.

"I believe that very, very few people come here," says the small, ruminative priest with soft blue eyes. "You can't even find the place. How can there be visitors?"

A teacher of moral theology at St. Mary's Seminary, Dunson wants the living to visit Cleveland's potter's field, where the city's destitute have been laid to rest in unmarked graves for almost a hundred years. If no one bothers to make the pilgrimage, he says, the place becomes nothing but a dumping ground for society's unwanted -- a convenient place to cover up our social ills with shovelfuls of dirt.

Overshadowed by its verdant neighbor, the Highland Park Golf Course, the lonely patch of land near Harvard and Green roads has no sign announcing it. Service workers and repeat visitors like Dunson know to keep their eyes peeled for a rugged path camouflaged by trees. Scattered, pink-tipped sticks that look like they mean something are its only distinguishing feature.

"I've talked to people who've played golf there 30 years who have no idea that it's there," says Dunson. Though technically part of the Highland Park Cemetery, the potter's field is not located on official cemetery grounds, as if to keep the rich and poor separated as far into the hereafter as God will allow.

A Cleveland priest for almost 20 years, Dunson himself only recently learned of the field's existence. Asked by a friend to say a special Memorial Day Mass there, he took a drive out to get the lay of the land. Though he had come prepared with written directions, he drove right by three times before he found the site with the help of a friendly groundskeeper, who led the way in his truck.

Troubled by the anonymity of the humble graveyard, where the names of the dead are written only on the wind, Dunson has tried to research its history at the city and county archives, but turned up little. He's also written newspaper commentaries to drum up public interest and perhaps get a sign erected, so the spot will be easier to find.

"People don't really want to acknowledge that [some] end up this way," he says. "And they do end up this way."

Francis Corrigan, the mortician who handles indigent burials for the city, says he buries three or four people a month in the potter's field. The city pays about $950 for the burial and a simple wooden casket. The state and, more recently, the county, used to have a backup fund for cities to tap into, but with this year's budget cuts, that cushion's gone now.

Some people who work with the homeless believe the cuts will lead to fewer burials in the potter's field and more cremations. "These are people with no family," laments Brian Davis, head of the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless. "They lived on the streets of Cleveland. We weren't able to take care of them when they were alive, and we can't take care of them when they die. Symbolically, it's cold and harsh."

Joe Gauntner, county director of health and human services, says the county had to make the cuts or be faced with cutting services like food stamps and health care that help people stay among the living. He's holding out hope that the city -- which is also cash-strapped -- will come up with more money of its own for burials.

It's unlikely the indigent burials will stop altogether. While other types of social reforms have come and gone according to public sentiment and prevailing philosophies, cities have always kept graveyards for the penniless and friendless. It's our one enduring humane gesture.

This particular potter's field dates back to about 1904, when the city purchased a 2,000-acre piece of land in what was then called Warrensville Township. The extra acreage was sort of a campus for the area's undesirables: The city infirmary and the poorhouse were located there, along with the prison workhouse and various contagious-disease hospitals.

The potter's field is the only remnant of that quarantine. Dunson reads its no-name status as an indication that most people would prefer either to hear happy endings to stories of poverty or hear no endings at all.

But homeless advocate Bill Hahn, who drives around in his van, administering food and supplies to people living alone under bridges and in shanties by the railroad tracks, would rather not visit the potter's field for his own reasons. Every year, about 30 people he's tried to help end up dying of exposure or suicide or lack of treatment for a terminal illness. If he can't do much for them in life, he reasons, he certainly can't do anything for them after the fact.

Though he usually loses track of where his homeless friends are buried, he can name three people he thinks ended up in the potter's field last year. One of them was James Gratchen, a war veteran who died of exposure in the Family Dollar parking lot, right next to the Volunteers of America shelter. Another was "Chief," a well-known figure in homeless circles who saw his shanty razed to make way for a Taco Bell that was never built. The third was Johnny Davis, an old guy murdered near the recreation center where he used to sleep.

The city's longtime archivist, Martin Hauserman, says he knows little about the potter's field. It's not even mentioned in the Encyclopedia of Cleveland History, which does drop the name of Woodhaven, "the area's only pet cemetery." Hauserman says the lack of documentation of the place probably has much to do with civic "embarrassment about the use of land for burial of undesirables or untouchables."

Father Dunson says he hopes that the next time he says a Mass at the field, he does it with the blessing and support of the city, rather than quietly for a small group of friends. Life brought these people more than their share of invisibility; the least death can do is acknowledge them.