The story of the potter’s field at New Paltz Rural Cemetery

Lisa Curtis, office manager at the New Paltz Rural Cemetery, in the special needs section of the Plains Road burial ground. (photo by Lauren Thomas)

Lisa Curtis, office manager at the New Paltz Rural Cemetery, in the special needs section of the Plains Road burial ground. (photo by Lauren Thomas)

It’s called the “Special Needs Section” of the New Paltz Rural Cemetery. Like all euphemisms, especially ones relating to death, the title is meant to soften a harsh reality.

That reality is compound: we all die, of course. But some of us die far from home. Some of us die lost, without the memory of friends or family. Some of us die in alleyways or emergency rooms. Some die face-down in drainage ditches or under frozen sheets of broken cardboard boxes. Some of us, in other words, die broke, alone, forgotten. These are the people whose bodies have for thousands of years filled what are most commonly called “potter’s fields.”

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Awkward and inexact as it may be, no one at the New Paltz Rural Cemetery would choose to have the Special Needs Section described by that dismal title. Better to make a euphemistic mystery of the marker-less area along the cemetery’s northwest border than to bring any further indignity to the people whose bodies lie buried there.

The term “potter’s field” has biblical roots. The story goes that after he betrayed Jesus, a desolate Judas flung the 30 pieces of silver he’d received for his action at the feet of the high priests who had secured his services. The money was considered tainted by blood, so the priests used it to buy land where clay was dug for pottery. Useless for farming, the land was deemed a fitting place for burying criminals, the forgotten and the poor.

The history of potter’s fields is bleak. In New York City alone, an estimated one million indigent and forgotten people have been buried – most of them in trenches – on Hart Island off the coast of the Bronx. Closer to home, the bodies of the mad, the poor and the powerless were routinely wrapped in sheets and dumped in shallow graves surrounding the Ulster County Poorhouse, on land that now includes the county fairgrounds.

The New Paltz Rural Cemetery was established in 1861, a time when traditional family burial in churchyards and near homes was fading. The Civil War was raging, prompting a sudden need for additional interment space. Since those days, close to 7000 bodies lie buried there on 32 acres of land framed by a view of the Shawangunk Ridge.

The cemetery’s Special Needs Section, which was established in 1982, now includes 25 rows of burial plots located on the cemetery’s northwest side. It’s easy to miss, since no memorial stones are allowed (which makes for easier maintenance). Instead, plastic stakes bearing a name and year of burial and here and there an in-ground stone mark the places where the bodies of the indigent now lie.

In Ulster County, the history of the indigent dead is researched by the county’s department of social services. The person may be known to the department, but may also be from out of the county. According to department commissioner Michael Iapoce, a person’s financial status is researched. If it’s determined that the person is in fact indigent, the department will release $1800 to a funeral home for basic burial services, including a casket. The cemetery will receive $1000 to cover its costs, he said. Some additional money may be available for such things as the transportation of the body.

Lisa Curtis is office manager of the New Paltz Rural Cemetery Association, the not-for-profit organization that runs the burial ground on Plains Road. She knows better than most how many stories lie buried across the cemetery’s expanse. Some have historical interest. Some are inspiring. But stories from the Special Needs Section are invariably heartbreaking.

The circumstances of death may vary from person to person, but rich or poor, they have one thing in common: “Grief is grief, and everybody grieves,” Curtis says.

Curtis remembers the family member who was able to place an in-ground stone marker over her mother’s grave 20 years after she had died.

The association is updating its records, creating a database that will make it easier to identify and even memorialize the people who are buried there.

Sometimes, people come to the association’s door looking for the graves of lost loved ones who are buried in the special needs section.
”They’re almost apologetic. I try to make them see there’s no need for that,” Curtis says.

While searching the cemetery’s records, Curtis came across what seemed a curious anomaly: four people buried on the same day in May 1986 in the Special Needs Section. It didn’t seem possible. She contacted Carol Johnson, town historian and coordinator of the Haviland-Heidgerd Historical Collection, who has been part of the effort to improve the cemetery’s historical records. Johnson confirmed that the record was accurate, and tragic.

The four burials were the result of house fire that took the lives of four Kingston residents; an 83-year-old grandfather, his 62-year-old son and two of the son’s children, a four-year-old girl and her 13-year-old sister. All were buried, side by side, in the special needs section.

The fire made headlines at the time, with neighbors voicing their concerns that the house was a known Midtown firetrap. That controversial fire and its victims have been long forgotten, a fate emblematic of every lost or forgotten soul in every potter’s field everywhere.

“It’s sad,” says Curtis, reflecting on some of the people and stories she has seen at her job. “No one should be forgotten. My grandmother said to me that no one should die without someone to hold their hand.”

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