Sunday, November 12, 2006

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

I was already starting to feel a little depressed and irritable. It's mid-November and the holiday frenzy is starting to gain momentum. Honor the baby Jesus and max out your credit cards on shoddy goods made in China by underpaid sub-standardly housed Wal-Mart employees. Upgrade to a 52 inch plasma TV--if you don't, the terrorists have won.

Ads to help the "needy" are coming out, too. Who knows how they've managed the other ten months of the year but donating the dented cans of creamed corn languishing in your pantry is sure to offset your consumer driven guilt. Blech. Even the news of Britney finally kicking Kevin to the curb barely cheered me. Then I had to stumble upon an article about Potter's Field in New York.

New York, like other cities, buries its poor, unknown and unclaimed in Potter's Field, located on Hart Island near the Bronx. Potter's Field is a generic term for anyplace the poor and unknown are buried. Wikpedia describes the origins of this term as:
...Matthew 27:7 in the New Testament of the Bible, in which Hebrew priests take 30 pieces of silver returned by a repentant Judas and "used the money to buy the potter's field as a burial place for foreigners." It was not called "the potter's field" because a potter owned it, but rather because the land was unfit to grow crops, and therefore only used by potters to dig clay.

Many cities have their own Potter's Field, just as many cities have a Tenderloin district. I thought it was called Tenderloin because it had been a meatpacking district but apparently it is because historically police officers were paid more to patrol these tougher streets, thus allowing them to buy better cuts of meat.

Dying is expensive for surviving loved ones. The cheapest way I know of to handle the dead is Pacific Interment in the Bay Area, where your remains can be disposed of for around $1000. Burial is easily $10,000, not counting the plot. So having a place to bury the poor is a public heath issue--you can't very well let the corpses of poor or unknown people molder in city morgues.

So what's so depressing about all of this? New York's Potter's Field is run by the Department of Corrections. The inmates on Riker's Island bury the dead for 50 cents an hour. Hart Island is not open to the public. To get permission to visit the graves of the dead from the Department of Corrections, you must get a death certificate and burial receipt, which you can only do if you are a relative or legal guardian of the deceased.

It reminds me of the cringeworthy Bushism--that's redundant--like saying chaise lounge. The Bushism, "First, let me make it very clear, poor people aren't necessarily killers." Not necessarily killers, but probably criminals of some kind, a stigma that follows the poor to death and beyond.

If people with means had to jump through all these hoops to visit the graves of their loved ones, they would certainly freak out and litigate. One of their arguments would surely be that they paid handsomely for the service of burial and upkeep precisely to have the right to visit freely.

San Francisco's system is slightly better, only because there is no involvement from Corrections. When alerted by the Medical Examiner's office of a deceased indigent or unknown, the Public Administrator's office will attempt to find any surviving relative to pony up the costs of cremation. Anyone who coughs up the dough can have the remains but no money, no remains. The message is the same: if you cannot pay, you do not have any rights concerning the deceased.

I suppose this also speaks to the "professionalization" of services typically provided by families, a far cry from the days when your kin would lay you out on the diningroom table and prepare you for burial themselves. Or the fractured nature of our familial relationships, when it once may have been unthinkable for close family members to be in a distant city alone, let alone dying alone in one.

I really must step away from this now before I become despondent. Someone recently told me something to the effect of, "A certain amount of denial is necessary to get out of bed in the morning." Too true. I must get ready to go to Stitch and Bitch hosted by The Mama, where I will no doubt engage in totally shallow gossip such as aforementioned divorce of Brit and other utterly superficial yet entertaining subjects.

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