Monday, February 8, 2010

Plague pits and potter's fields

1st image) Rikers Island inmates burying babies' caskets at Potter's Field on Hart Island, New York, 1991. 2nd image) Grave on Hart Island covered over with plywood until it contains 150 caskets, at which point it is closed and marked with a single stone. 3rd image) Excavation of a mass grave of victims of the Black Death in 17th c. London. 4th image) A stone marking the common grave of 149 plague victims at All Saints Church in Isleworth, U.K.

In my post on Morgue overcrowding, I mentioned the possibility of unclaimed remains ending up in Potter's Field. This generic term for a piece of ground designated for the burial of the unknown and indigent dates back to the Bible. In Matthew 27: 3-8, the chief priests decide to spend the 30 pieces of silver that Judas received for betraying Jesus on a "burying place for strangers." It is thought that they chose the Valley of Hinnom for this purpose, which was a source of potter's clay. Potter's fields underlie many locations in today's cities: Lincoln Park in Chicago; Washington Square in Philadelphia; and Washington Square Park, in New York City, just to name a few. Hart Island now serves as New York's potter's field, and with 800,000 burials since the 45-acre plot was first used in 1869, it is the largest cemetery in the U.S.

Greater London is the site of many common graves, but these are in the form of plague pits. During plagues - notably the Black Death of the mid-14th c. and the London Plague of the late 16th c. - the volume of deaths precluded individual burial. Bodies were added to large pits from wheelbarrows and carts. As Vanessa Harding, senior researcher at Birkbeck College, University of London, explains:
"Burial during the plague certainly has to change, simply because of the pressure of numbers. Probably the first thing to change is that they're burying people more quickly if they possibly can. You can't afford to wait two or three days, because in two or three days, there'll be another dozen bodies to bury, so they're certainly burying people more quickly. The plague orders suggest they should be buried at night – I think because of the fear of infection if there are funerals going through the public street. As the parishes begin to dig pits to bury their local dead, that obviously is quite a change from the way in which people had been buried in single graves before. The parishes stopped burying people inside churches, which had always been an option for the better off. They also probably stopped burying in coffins – or a much larger proportion are buried in shrouds rather than in coffins – partly because of space, partly because of cost."
Slightly more decorum could be maintained by using (and reusing) a casket with a hinged end. Despite the wealth of information that can be gleaned by physical anthropologists and paleopathologists from the excavation and examination of the skeletons in a plague pit, one study suggests that data from a single such assemblage of remains is no better than a conventional cemetery for determining the demography and pattern of disease of a population.

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