By Trudy Wischemann
I went to Potters Field last Wednesday to attend the mass burial for Tulare County’s unclaimed dead. I didn’t know why I felt called to go, but the urge was as solid as the Sierra.
Founded in 1964, Potters Field is a blank piece of land surrounded by a black chain link fence in the far northwest corner of the county near Traver. It abuts Pioneer Cemetery, founded in 1888. Both cemeteries are treeless, and probably grassless once the sun burns off the tender winter blades the rain had produced from the soil. In Potters Field I saw no headstones, though some small wooden crosses, perhaps 10” high, were placed upright in a few places. Pioneer Cemetery appeared the same.
The ceremony was moving in many ways. Three pastors and a priest from Kingsburg participated in delivering the last rites, and members of their churches attended to bear witness. Other members of the public were there, some on behalf of loved ones, others on behalf of the brother- and sisterhood of souls. A woman I know who works for the County was there on behalf of a young client who died at the age of 24. The prayers were heartfelt and comforting. We sang four verses of “Amazing Grace” together, healing some of the pain. At the end, members from the Kingsburg Community Church’s choir sang “It Is Well With My Soul,” a perfect benediction.
The names of those whose ashes were being interred were read, around 210 of them. It had been almost five years since the last interment. Most of the names were Anglo, not Latino as I discovered I’d expected, revealing my poor assumptions about the reasons these bodies had gone unclaimed. Unlike most funerals, their life stories went untold, their ages were not revealed. In essence, what we witnessed, however, is the passage we all make from dust to dust. At last these people had somewhere to lay their heads, metaphorically at least, since it was their ashes, not their flesh and bones being returned to the earth.
Part of the joy of being there was finding myself among others similarly compelled toward the notion that we are all children of God. Joining other members of the living who recognize individual sacredness was a good antidote to the despair I often feel when my own judgmental-ness overrides my compassion. What we often cannot do in life—cut others a lot of slack—we might be able to make up for slightly in death.
I had wanted to take John Pitney’s song “Where Will My People Lay Their Heads?” to the ceremony, but luckily decided not to intrude. It’s a rough song, rough on those of us with food and shelter we assume we will always have until it’s time to lay our bodies down in the good earth. I’m possessive of mine, as most of us are for good reason. How terrible to die, we think, homeless and unwanted. How much more terrible to live that way, though.
Blessings on the people of Kingsburg, a Fresno County town, for giving their time and energy to provide a decent burial to Tulare County’s dead. Blessings on all the people in our county, too, who reach out in life.
Trudy Wischemann is a rural researcher who writes. You can send her your thoughts on Potters Field c/o P.O. Box 1374, Lindsay CA 93247 or visit www.trudysnotesfromhome.blogspot.com and leave a comment there.
This column is not a news article but the opinion of the writer and does not reflect the views of The Foothills Sun-Gazette newspaper.