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A potter's field or common grave is a term for a place for the burial of unknown or indigent people. The expression derives from the Bible, referring to a field used for the extraction of potter's clay, which was useless for agriculture but could be used as a burial site.
- Then Judas, who betrayed him, seeing that he was condemned, repenting himself, brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and ancients, saying: "I have sinned in betraying innocent blood." But they said: "What is that to us? Look thou to it." And casting down the pieces of silver in the temple, he departed, and went and hanged himself with a halter. But the chief priests, having taken the pieces of silver, said: "It is not lawful to put them into the corbona, because it is the price of blood." And after they had consulted together, they bought with them the potter's field, to be a burying place for strangers. For this the field was called Haceldama, that is, the field of blood, even to this day.
The site referred to in these verses is traditionally known as Akeldama, in the valley of Hinnom, which was a source of potter's clay. Obviously, such a strip-mining site would not then be good for agriculture and might as well become a graveyard for those who could not be buried in an orthodox cemetery. This may be the origin of the name.
Matthew was drawing on earlier Biblical references to potter's fields The passage continues, with verses 9 and 10:-
- Then what the prophet Jeremiah had said came true: "They took the thirty silver coins, the amount the people of Israel had agreed to pay for him, and used the money to buy the potter's field, as the Lord had commanded me."
This is a free quotation from Zechariah 11:12-13. However Matthew gives the quote to Jeremiah thereby creating confusion. There are two possible reasons for the reference to Jeremiah. Jeremiah also speaks of a "potter's field" in the valley of Hinnom in Jeremiah 19:1-13 as a symbol of despair as mentioned here; and Matthew could have combined the words of the two prophets while only citing the "major" prophet. Secondly, Jeremiah was sometimes used to refer to the Books of the Prophets in toto as The Law is sometimes used to refer to Moses' five books - Genesis through Deuteronomy.
Craig Blomberg suggests that the use of the blood money to buy a burial ground for foreigners in Matthew 27:7 may hint at the idea that "Jesus' death makes salvation possible for all the peoples of the world, including the Gentiles."
- William Blake used the term in Chapter 1 of Jerusalem The Emanation of the Giant Albion, "Jerusalem is our Harlot-Sister/Return'd with the Children of pollution, to defile our House,/With Sin and Shame. Cast! Cast her into the Potters field."
- Lincoln Park, on Chicago's North Side, found its origin in the 1840s as Chicago City Cemetery. The southernmost portion of the cemetery, where one may now find a number of baseball fields (north of LaSalle Dr., west of North Avenue Beach), was the location of the City Cemetery potter's field from 1843 to 1871. More than 15,000 people, including 4,000 Confederate soldiers, were buried here on marshy land near the water's edge. The baseball fields have occupied these grounds since 1877.
- Madison Square Park, Washington Square Park and Bryant Park in New York City originated as potter's fields. The city's current potter's field, and one of the largest cemeteries in the United States, with at least 800,000 burials, is on Hart Island.
- Potter's Field was also the name of a small cove of the East River just below the Williamsburg Bridge on the Brooklyn side, where bodies that have been in the river from November through the winter season surface in April as the rising temperature causes them to decompose and rise to the surface. The fluid dynamics of the East River causes a collection of these bodies every year off the docks of Potter's Field.
- Hudson County Burial Grounds
- Washington Square (Philadelphia)
- Potter's Field (Omaha) in Omaha, Nebraska
- Holt Cemetery in New Orleans contains the remains of known and unknown early jazz musicians, including Charles "Buddy" Bolden. The battered remains of Robert Charles, at the center of the 1900 New Orleans race riot were briefly interred there, then dug up, and incinerated. It is located next to Delgado Community College.
- Potters Fields, London, SE1, near the London City Hall and St Olave's Grammar School
- Toronto, Ontario had a Potter's Field at the corner of Yonge and Bloor Streets. The burial grounds were closed with some of the bodies moved to other cemeteries. Unknown number of bodies remained on the site when it was built over. Today the grounds are part of the posh Yorkville district, and the site of an office tower.
- Blue Plains, in the Anacostia area of Washington D.C., contains remains of executed international spies including Nazi spies from Operation Pastorius.
- Cimetière de Laval, near Montreal, Quebec
- Music Hall in Cincinnati, Ohio was built over a nineteenth-century potter's field.
- Hart Island, New York, the Potter's Field in New York City, is featured in the film Don't Say a Word. The independent documentary Hart Island: An American Cemetery by Melinda Hunt also concerns Hart Island.
- Mr. Potter, the greedy banker in the Frank Capra film It's a Wonderful Life, is told by his land agent that his slum-like housing will soon be a "potter's field" due to the Baileys' efforts to build affordable housing.
- It is now confirmed that the child actor Bobby Driscoll (Peter Pan, 1953) is buried in Potter's Field on Hart Island in New York, being unidentified at the time of his burial. This is also loosely referenced in Law & Order: Criminal Intent in the episode "Blasters".
- In the HBO drama Oz, "Potter's Field" is the name for the cemetery where deceased prisoners with no next-of-kin or whose remains are unclaimed are buried
- In Victor Hugo's Les Misérables, Jean Valjean is buried in Potter's Field.
- From Potter's Field is a novel by Patricia Cornwell.
- The Potter's Field is the name of the seventeenth chronicle in the series of Brother Cadfael detective books by Ellis Peters, later turned into a television episode.
- Potter's Field is the title of an 3 issue limited comic book series (plus a one shot) written by Mark Waid and published by Boom! Studios about an anonymous investigator who takes it upon himself to discover the identities of those buried on Hart Island.
- A potter's field is featured in Neil Gaiman's novel The Graveyard Book. One of the characters, Liza Hempstock, is a witch who was buried in a potter's field next to Nobody Owens' graveyard.
- Potter's Field is an album by the rock band 12 Stones.
- "No Eagle Lies in Potter's Field" is the name of a song by the rock band On A Pale Horse.
- "Potter's Field" is the name of a song by heavy metal band Anthrax from their 1993 album Sound of White Noise.
- Railroad Earth has a song called "Potter's Field" on their self-titled 2010 album.
- Tom Waits makes references to Potter's Field in several of his songs.
- On the title track to Johnny Cash's album American IV: The Man Comes Around, the lyrics include a reference to "the potter's ground" as a metaphor for dying without salvation.
- In the long-running MUD GemStone IV, an area called the "Potter's Field" is the primary spawn area for zombies. The area's descriptions are, indeed, of a long-disused graveyard for the indigent and unknown.
- Similarly, in City of Villains a massive graveyard called "Potter's Field" is a place where zombies spawn, while magicians use the area for necromantic rituals.
- American bluegrass band Blue Highway mentions a Potter's field as Ottie's final resting place in the song "Clay and Ottie".
- The name of the American Noise rock band A Place to Bury Strangers describes a potter's field.
- The Venture Compound in The Venture Brothers has a potter's field containing dead henchman. The boys remembered their father telling them to avoid a spooky house on the edge of their property, "Mr. Potter's house". However the actual inhabitant, a reclusive scientist named Ben, told Dean Venture that no one named "Mr. Potter" had ever lived there, and theorized that Dean's father had actually called it "potter's field", because he and his father used the field in front of the house to bury all of the supervillain henchmen who died on the compound over the centuries.
- The term was used by Saul Berenson in the Series Homeland Episode 7 to describe where Raqim Faisel would be buried.
- Douay-Rheims Bible
- R. T. France, The Gospel According to Matthew: An Introduction and Commentary, Eerdmans (1985), page 386
- Craig L. Blomberg, "Matthew," in Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), 97.
- Hidden Truths: Potter's Field
- Hart Island; Melinda Hunt and Joel Sternfeld; ISBN 3-931141-90-X
- "Hart Island", The Morning News
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