How and Why the Destitute Dead of Northeast Ohio Are Remembered

A quest across the River Styx

How and Why the Destitute Dead of Northeast Ohio Are Remembered

With each name, a bell tolls in memoriam. The low hum of suburban traffic provides a droning bass line as a group of 50 or so takes a Saturday morning in October to remember the dead.

The Rev. Raymond Guiao is presiding over a prayer service, a semiannual gathering of the Saint Joseph of Arimathea Pallbearer Ministry at Memorial Park, known historically as the local potter's field. Here, the city's poor and destitute and nearly forgotten souls rest in eternity. Guiao says, very simply, that the group is here "to give to those who have died and gone to the other side of life the dignity of being remembered." Students from St. Ignatius High School take turns reading off the names of everyone who has been buried since the last time the ministry congregated here. The bell tolls onward.

The potter's field in Cleveland is quite difficult to find, and that's not by happenstance. Located among a thicket of trees abutting Highland Park Golf Course, the cemetery bears no roadside signifiers. One must sort of guess which plaintive curb cut on Green Road will lead him or her to the cemetery. (It's the second one in on the west side of Green, just north of Harvard.) On the city of Cleveland's website, it's the only one of the city's cemeteries that doesn't have an address listed.

More than 18,000 men, women and children have been buried here since the cemetery's opening in 1904, according to estimates. (Scene's request to peruse the cemetery ledgers remains tied up in a Freedom of Information Act filing.) No one is permitted to be here when someone is being buried, which is quite often: The Saint Joseph of Arimathea Pallbearer Ministry buries more than 250 people each year in cemeteries around the city.

There are no headstones, no markers, no visible pattern to the cemetery's layout — just a single tree-lined driveway winding through the cemetery. When an Ignatius student takes a single carnation and walks across the park for a moment of silent prayer, there's no discernable place to pause and reflect. And so they take in the whole of the property: the unavoidably finite and humble resting place for those who tripped into death penniless and alone.

The central argument here — one repeated by small groups of the sacred and secular alike all over the world — is that we should embrace the memories of these people. They came before us, helping to construct the grand narrative of our society, strand by strand, in their own quiet ways. If we truly are all in this together, that deserves something.

"This is us recognizing these people who led full lives and showing them that we remember them," St. Ignatius graduate Connor Williams says.

Dying isn't free. The last act of a life is also the last act of consumerism. The average funeral costs between $6,000 and $10,000 these days. And even when the journey into the afterlife involves no family members or friends — and thus no funeral — there is still the pragmatic and cultural process of laying a person's remains to rest.

click to enlarge Members of the Saint Joseph of Arimathea Pallbearer Ministry attend a prayer service at Memorial Park.
Members of the Saint Joseph of Arimathea Pallbearer Ministry attend a prayer service at Memorial Park.

Bottom line? For the poorest and most isolated among us, indigent burials clock in somewhere between $500 and $1,000. Those costs are borne by a person's city of residence, according to a 2001 Ohio law. Most cities have their own cemeteries, some of which are specifically designated for the poorest residents. Private cemeteries often donate plots to city governments as well, expressly for the purpose of indigent burials.

But if death itself is already a conversation our society tends to avoid, then the fates of the poorest and most isolated among us are stories that we often willfully obliterate.

If we look toward our deaths at all, we look hopefully forward to leaving an imprint — a hope that our departures will have left a mark and that we will be remembered. Confronting the idea that there are those among us who will not be afforded that celebration is discomforting.

In that way, pauper burials and potter's fields are processed in a cold bureaucratic sense. When someone dies and investigators determine that there are no funds, no bank accounts, no family members to take care of the arrangements, then the journey to join others like them begins.

Often enough, according to Cuyahoga County medical examiner Thomas Gilson, the process to identify someone as "indigent" begins at the scene of death. Perhaps this person died unattended; perhaps he or she was murdered. Investigators will then collect information on the person's family, neighbors or co-workers to begin making notifications and to determine whether there's a financial support system to shuttle this person into the afterlife.

"When [leads] get exhausted, we do just turn to the Internet to try to do searches, for family or next of kin," Gilson says. When nothing turns up at the end of all possible pathways, Gilson's office will get the person's hometown law department involved. That process alone might take weeks after an already drawn-out investigative process.

"It sort of buys us more time: Any of these leads that may become fruitful, it gives them some time to ripen," Gilson says.

But while there have always been sacred groups waiting on the other side to remember and consider the poorest souls, the legal framework for indigent burials hasn't always been there. Long before the advent of laws and processes like this, those who wanted to hide the destitute of society were able to do so with ease.

All it takes is a little time for nature to cover up a tragedy, to give the impression of healing a wound.

It may not be common knowledge even today, but the small cemetery on Deerview Lane in Lafayette Township at least has a sign now declaring it as a burial ground. And while the wooden marker is presently broken and lying on the ground, at least it's there. Lafayette Township trustee Lynda Bowers, along with a group of residents and historians and resident historians, helped make that sign happen, along with the flag, too, which whips around late-October gusts of wind when Scene comes looking for the place.

For decades, this cemetery was a guarded secret.

Located just down the road from the Medina County Home — referred to a century ago as "the insane building" — this isosceles sliver of land is one of thousands of small and mostly hidden potter's fields in the U.S. This is where the indigent and destitute of the Medina area were buried, where they were promptly concealed from society and time.

The grass is neatly grown in now and pine needles coat the ground. A railroad runs across the western edge, in all likelihood right over the top of various 19th-century graves. Light depressions dot the land and signify the orderly resting places of the dead. With a small driveway nearby, this land, now owned by the Medina County Parks District, is a gentle roadside dock for long-lost souls.

As recently as the mid-2000s, however, overgrowth and poison ivy ruled the property. A passing driver, even one actively on the hunt for hidden cemeteries, would be none the wiser.

click to enlarge Bricks are stacked at one end of the Medina County Home Cemetery.
Bricks are stacked at one end of the Medina County Home Cemetery.
"I had always heard about the cemetery, because I grew up in the area," Bowers says. "But, you know, things that didn't really need to be a secret were a secret."

Bowers is known around town as a "cemetery nerd," she says. These stories matter to her. After a lifetime of picking up on faintly whispered rumors of a potter's field somewhere in the area, she began to dig for the truth and try to find out where this place could be. She began to talk about her quest into the past, gathering compatriots along the way.

Former Medina County administrator John Stricker took note. And as serendipity tends to sprout in special moments, Stricker called Bowers in February 2006. He would die of lung cancer two weeks later, but first he needed to share an unexpected discovery with Bowers. "He called me and he said, 'I'm at the county offices, I'm in my old office. I have something that you want. Come here.'

"When a guy who you know is dying calls you and says he has something you want, you go," Bowers says. She went.

She arrived to find Stricker's desk completely bare, save for a single sheet of paper that he slid toward her. "This is what you're looking for," he said. "You'll know what to do with this."

It was a hand-drawn map of a cemetery on Deerview Lane.

The term "potter's field" comes from the New Testament, Matthew 27:7 to be specific, and it refers to "a burying place for strangers." By Biblical accounts, Judas Iscariot killed himself in grief after betraying Jesus Christ for 30 pieces of silver. A group of priests used that bribe money to purchase a plot of land and began burying strangers and cast-offs like Iscariot there.

Two thousand years later, not much has changed.

"There are cemeteries like this all over the state," Bowers says, referring to long-hidden potter's fields. And even though Cleveland's potter's field isn't actively covered up by time and vegetation, one could still argue that it's been hidden from the local consciousness, what with no address, sign or headstones.

The small plot of land on Deerview Lane was once part of the Medina County Home's property. In the early 20th century, the home was a place for the destitute, the indigent, the insane. (These days, anyone can live there — even, say, snowbird millionaires who winter in Naples and live at the county home the rest of the year — as long as they cover the monthly rate.)

Around 100 years ago, when the home brimmed with the down-and-out, there wasn't a law on the books that dictated what to do with the penniless dead. When paupers died at the Medina County Home — just like countless other facilities the world over — their bodies were sort of just tossed into a convenient corner of the property. In this case, they were sent about 100 yards up the road to a small and mostly ad-hoc burial ground.

"The county home cemetery wasn't forgotten," Bowers says. "The county home cemetery was hidden. It wasn't forgotten. But it was hidden long enough that it became forgotten. It was kind of a pretty well-kept secret — not just in Medina County, but in every county. It was something that decent people didn't talk about."

For the past 14 years, municipalities have covered the costs of indigent burials. (The state of Ohio allotted $750 per burial prior to 2001.) Couple that with the past few decades' push for increased transparency and sunshine laws, and the records of such afterlife protocol bear out at least a baseline of reverence not seen in earlier years.

The last known burial at the Medina County Home cemetery took place on Sept. 18, 1950. From there, time and social pressures pushed memories of the place into the local ether. Already an undesirable topic for the dinner table, the cemetery and its residents washed into the recesses of history. Weeds and poison ivy took root. In the 1970s, the county ran a water line through the land with nary a mention of the dozens of pine boxes and bodies resting underground. It's possible the workers didn't even notice.

Time wore on.

Stricker's map changed everything, though. Bowers and a group of people — including local historian Eli Beachy and Deerview Lane resident Jim Cottrell — suddenly had some facts with which to line the old rumors. The quest began in earnest.

Bowers and the collective fished through old Medina Gazette articles for hours on end. For instance, she learned about Joe Pornoski, one of the final men to be interred at the cemetery. From the newspaper's July 1, 1949, edition: "Joe Pornoski, 65, who had been employed until two weeks ago by Frank Gavalak on County Road 38 in Brunswick township, ended his life by hanging himself to a tree in the apple orchard of Joe Gavalak a short distance away on the same road, sometime Monday."

That's what happened to Joe Pornoski. These stories matter.

But first, the group had to unearth the cemetery itself. A group of local residents gathered regularly at the site to clear away brush, cut down trees and haul off debris. "A lot of people got poison ivy," Bowers says.

Once cleared, clues to the property's history became clearer. The next step of Bowers' quest was to record the lives of everyone buried there. Much like the physical work, this was not easy.

One man, 101 years old now, remembered burying people in the cemetery. He helped clarify the extent of the hand-drawn map to Bowers, pointing out the depressions that signified shallow graves marked on the paper.

With the map in hand and the cemetery property clearing up, Bowers began requesting any and all public records pertaining to the cemetery parcels. County offices turned Bowers away, saying that there were no records of anything. "No one was talking about anything," she recalls.

She was hoping to gather records from the county home, hoping, for instance, to find payments from the county to the home for indigent burials. From there, she figured, she could identify names associated with payments, and then learn who was buried in the cemetery.

"And if they weren't buried in any other local cemetery, you can assume they were buried on the county home property," Bowers says. No dice; no one was giving up records. Hence the turn toward newspaper microfilm.

"The county home — and therefore the cemetery itself — is a microcosm of America," Eli Beachy told the Medina Gazette in 2007. "It's a good reflection of how we were. Plus, there are so many stories in this cemetery, they just can't be forgotten."

Along the way, as this research unfolded in the mid- to late-2000s, Wooster resident Mike McCann assembled all of the records into one volume. McCann has done this sort of cemetery cataloging work in counties all over Northeast Ohio.

The end result is a massive tome of data about many cemeteries in the area. Each of the 192 burials in the small cemetery was given an entry in the book — an historical note memorializing that person.

Indigent burials continue regularly in Medina County and elsewhere. (Most indigent burials involve the "cremains" of a person and, in Medina County, take place at Waltz Cemetery.) But having a legal framework to outline the process doesn't mean that civil society confronts this issue any more often than people did 100 years ago. Bowers says she and the group worked on this quest for eight or nine years, filling in wide gaps of local history and memorializing the hidden dead of her township. The place is visible now, but it still occupies only a quiet corner of the world around it.

"Nobody really wanted to get stuck with a cemetery," Bowers says of various agencies' unwillingness to act as stewards of the land over the years. "But it was very important to me. I just wanted the county to recognize the area, to preserve the area. It's protected now."

There's a line often credited to graffiti artist Banksy that goes like this: "They say you die twice. One time when you stop breathing and a second time, a bit later on, when somebody says your name for the last time." It was hard not to think of that idea while walking across a cemetery and recalling the names read aloud at the Cleveland prayer service, or sifting through the records gathered by Bowers and the rest of her group.

"You want to know anything about Lafayette cemeteries, go call Lynda. She's the cemetery nerd." That's what you might hear if you truck down to Medina County and start asking questions about where all the bodies are buried. At least that what Bowers tells us.

There's good reason for that. She comes from a "very military family," and she was raised with a great deal of respect for the country's war dead. Just about every cemetery in the U.S. lays claim to the memory and honor of someone lost in war. It's as true in Medina County as it is elsewhere.

And most of these older cemeteries also bear the bodies of the original settlers of Ohio's small towns "These are the people who cleared the land," Bowers says. "These were the people who settled here. These were the people who had the first stores, the first post offices. These are the people who are responsible for taking care of the land where we live today."

Those stories may appear to be locked up now, 6 feet deep in Ohio soil and covered with time. But as long as we take a moment to remember, these lives are not lost forever.

"I didn't want to lose that stuff," Bowers says, "so I collected as many stories as I could."

[Editor's note: A reference to where the Saint Joseph of Arimathea Pallbearer Ministry conducts burials has been edited to correct an inaccuracy.]

About The Author

Eric Sandy

Eric Sandy is an award-winning Cleveland-based journalist. For a while, he was the managing editor of Scene. He now contributes jam band features every now and then.
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