The term "potter's field" derives from a New Testament Bible story (Matthew 27:3-10) in which a plot of land owned by a potter outside the walls of the city of Jerusalem is purchased "as a burial place for foreigners" with the tainted 30 pieces of silver that Judas received (and returned) for betraying Jesus (New York City Department of Corrections, 1967).
potter's field may be observed at City Cemetery on New York City's Hart Island, which was opened in 1869 and brings the efficiency and scale of the Industrial Revolution to the medieval pauper's grave.
A change in burial practices favoring cremation will not in most cases, however, divert the road away from potter's field. Cremations cost less than interments, but most indigent burials involve people with, at most, a few hundred dollars in assets.
Although more inexpensive burial practices only marginally affect the volume of indigent burials, a social worker may be called on to intervene in a more subtle manner; a crematory may itself become a sort of potter's field. A survey conducted a decade ago by CANA found that 5.7 percent of cremated remains in 1996 to 1997 were never picked up, and 2.4 percent of cremated remains delivered to a cemetery were placed in a common grave.
THE ROAD TO POTTER'S FIELD: THE GROWING NEED FOR SOCIAL WORK INTERVENTION
I thought of my own precious mother, whose remains had slumbered for years in a quiet and beautiful spot, marked with a clean and tasteful slab of marble; and then of my dear father, who was buried in a very different way almost uncared for, in the Potter's Field. Some very sad thoughts came up in my mind.
They felt that to be buried in a potter's field was to be denied eternal rest.