The Great Gift of St. Joseph of Arimathea

Dear Henry,

Lately, because of my time spent with the story of the Old Lick Cemetery, I've learned more about historic burials and the legalities behind cemeteries than I ever imagined. More specifically, I've learned about the handling of indigent burials, and that is heartbreaking knowledge.

The grounds of the Old Lick Cemetery were actually two separate cemeteries. One portion belonged to the African American congregation of the First Baptist Church, and the remaining grounds were a city-owned free burial ground for the local African American community or, in other terms, a potter's field.

By all accounts, the free burial ground was, before being razed for I-581, a ghoulish place, and learning of the conditions roused me to research indigent burials in the United States.  

What I've learned is even more ghoulish. Before the 1950s/1960s, indigent burial grounds nationwide were all terrible places. Graves were reused several times,  there was little to no recordkeeping, and no markers were installed. It is impossible to identify the specific burial site of a specific person. In addition, if the cemetery was near a medical school or other research facilities, those institutions often absconded bodies. Fortunately, by all accounts, Old Lick did not suffer from "body stealing" however, there weren't a lot of cemeteries for African Americans in Roanoke county, and I wonder how many people were interred in the city-owned free burial ground simply because there was no other option.

I would love to say this has changed in the last 80 years, but I can't. Of course, variations depending on the state and indigent burials have become more cosmetically appealing. Most areas have moved to cremation and now, by law, maintain the grounds where remains are kept. It is still impossible to pinpoint the individual gravesites of individuals, with cremains being buried in mass graves by year or scattered on scattering grounds. Sea-side localities have resorted to scattering the ashes at sea, and some locations immediately donate the insolvent dead to science.

And there are approximately 273,000 of these burials each year, based upon the 11.4% poverty rate and the 2020 US death total of 2,403,351.

All of this research has brought to mind St. Joseph of Arimathea, the man who gave up his own tomb for the burial of Christ following his crucifixion. By custom, Jesus should have been buried outside the city walls in an early version of a potter's field. The resurrection story would have been much different had not St. Joseph of Arimathea provided a burial place.

Our dead are essential. Not just as remembrances of who they were and what they meant to us but to coin a phrase I've read from the philosopher Avner de-Shalit, the dead are a part of our "transgenerational community."

 We need to value our dead to value our community and our culture.

Unfortunately, I don't have a good answer or idea about how to solve this problem. However, I hope that, through the intercession of St. Joseph of Arimathea and the work of communities, one can be found.

xoxo a.d. elliott.


a.d. elliott is a wanderer, writer, and photographer currently living in Salem, Virginia. 

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