Monday, I buried Michael in a potter’s field. There was no service, just Luke and me saying our goodbyes. A three-way, 13-year-old friendship dissolved.
My friend, Luke lives in an alley behind a fast food place. He often does day labor cleanup at constructions sites. I’ve never seen his home, so we met at a church to drive to the burial. I wondered how he managed to look so presentable — shaved, wearing a white shirt, and dark dress pants tucked into clean dingo boots. I was old lady presentable wearing black and sneakers.
We greeted the gravediggers — respectful, yet sure of their jobs — guiding us through the grief procedures in an unfamiliar landscape. All barren dry fields and barely paved lanes leading to the burial ground. Who does this honest work with a grave-sized backhoe and a few shovels? Who deals with death daily and worries about the mourners, if there are any? Who declines a gratuity graciously?
We were told we had 15 minutes alone before the burial and suggested we wait for the hearse in a nearby open structure used for services. There were no pews, no chairs, so Luke and I rested easily on a cement wall. At the last minute before leaving home, I thought to bring a prayer book. For two mourners, I read:
May the angels lead you into paradise;
may the martyrs come to welcome you
and take you to the holy city,
the new and eternal Jerusalem.
May the choir of angels welcome you,
and where Lazarus is poor no longer
may you find eternal rest.
The word hearse captivated Luke. He repeated it again and again. “Let’s get there before the hearse arrives.” Then borrowing my phone to call the funeral home, he asked “Has the hearse left yet?” Later focusing on the faraway lane in the distance, “Look, it that the hearse?” Maybe he felt it finally gave Michael some dignity to ride in a shiny elegant vehicle, if only to his burial. We were both a bit disappointed to see Michael’s body arrive in a battered, sun-faded blue van.
Luke and I learned how the burial in a potter’s field is done. When the body is delivered it is transferred to a coffin-sized wheeled cart, which is used to transport the body to the grave. Michael’s black plastic body bag was contained in a blue floral cardboard box from the funeral home.
Not only were we not allowed to see the actual burial, the cardboard coffin could not be opened, as Michael’s body was already decomposing. He had died months ago crossing a busy highway.
Luke was saddened to not be able to see his friend one last time. I was grateful for the rules and wanted to remember Michael as I knew him for the past decade plus — a smiling volunteer short-order cook and expert quesadilla toaster in a soup kitchen, and Salvation Army Bell ringer — proud of his jobs.
There is a wooden stake put in the plat identifying the name of the deceased. Sometime later a cement slab will be placed on the site with the inscription: Michael Shawn Mayes, 1968- 2019.
I tied a purple silk ribbon on his wooden stake with a brass pin that read: “I have called you by name; you are mine.”
Potter’s fields are ancient. In the Gospel of Matthew, we read that the 30 pieces of silver, the blood money, Judas received for identifying Jesus, were used to purchase a potter’s field. It is thought that potters used clay from certain fields for their work. Thus the holes and trenches left, made the fields unsuitable for planting, but ideal for burying the unclaimed, the indigent, the homeless.
We traveled nearly an hour to pay our respects. With each unfamiliar mile from major highway, to black-top country road, to dirt lane, I wondered why potter’s fields are so far away from a city. Is it because of cheap acreage? Or because those who own the land and the cemetery, figure no one will travel distances to visit, to honor, to remember these dead. They are already the forgotten people.
Michael, Rest in Peace
Judy Knotts is the author of "You Are My Brother: Lessons Learned Embracing a Homeless Community" and a former principal.