According to Wikipedia, A potter's field or common grave is an American 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. To me, it is sacred ground. I realize that metaphorically, sacred ground is not a place at all but a state of consciousness in which one feels wholly connected to a grander vision. There are, however, physical locals, where thoughts, feelings and emotions align in a way that allow divine paradox to enter on a visceral level. Potters’ Field in Cumberland, MD is just such a place for me.
I realize that for many who pass by this grassy field on a daily basis, it is probably just that, a grassy field. For me it is the holiest of cemeteries. My great aunt has blessed this mound with her precious relics for over 50 years. Dad brought me here often as a child. My earliest memories are of running up and down between the rows of wooden crosses with my brother, catching grasshoppers, looking for toads or searching for leaves or acorns from the surrounding woods. When I grew old enough to understand, my father began to talk more about his aunt Bert, lamenting that he hadn’t been allowed to bury her along side her parents in the Catholic cemetery because she had left “The Church”. Though I sensed his sadness, it was years before the ramifications of this one act, this single decision of a woman’s searching for her own truth became genuinely significant to me. Bertha’s essence mingles here with the other, the poor, the deranged, the disavowed. Yet the spiritual chemistry of these combined lives and deaths bring a peaceful dignity to this paupers’ burial ground.
Many people become completely broken when they discover that life is not always reasonable, that it won’t always flow sequentially, that it’s not always logical, orderly or well known. The unknown is too much for them to even consider. Yet here lies a woman who was willing to face the mystery. At some point, she made the decision to stand by her convictions without shame, knowing she’d be shunned for doing so. Bert had rejected the family faith and, in turn, her family, except for my father, rejected her. It would have been easier for everyone involved had she just gone through the motions, pretending to believe in a dogma she’d outgrown; easier on everyone but her, that is. She could have continued to bless herself from the holy water font at church. “Isn’t all water holy?” I picture her asking. She could have remained kneeling through rituals, beating her heart and reciting the prayers of her own unworthiness even though her God saw everyone’s worth and dignity.
Bert refused to betray her own heart, couldn’t live except in her own truth and now she rests here somewhere under one of these white iconic crosses surrounded by bouquets of clover. I keep returning to this patch of ground long after my own father’s death. It’s a sacred space holding so much more than these pale, anesthetic symbols of namelessness. I wish I knew which plot was hers, but souls who had no rest in life are now left to revel in anonymity.
Plywood symbols would crucify her image for all eternity, but not while I’m around. My dad passed on his reverence for this spot and I look to the woods that guard these graves with trust, wanting to dissolve amid stoic oak pillars just long enough to find some clarity in my own life.
I’ve heard it said that the truth will set you free, but it can also be a terrifying plunge into the unknown. I think of courageous women like Rosa Parks who said, “I will no longer act on the outside in a way that contradicts the truth that I hold deeply on the inside. I will no longer act as if I were less than the whole person I know myself inwardly to be.”
Somewhere along the way, my Aunt Bert, whom I only vaguely remember, had paid attention to her heart and her gut, had chosen to lived from her center, and even though the years must have scratched and clawed, she became a woman who was true to herself. I’m sure she became empowered by that choice and within the sadness of the archaic practice of “shunning” I also imagine the breath of freedom that must always accompany the undoing of one less mask.
Just like my long lost relative, I too have thought patterns that no longer serve me, yet I often continue to nurture them. Each one is an obstacle that needs to be excavated. Bert was able to release her allegiance to the thought, “This cannot be done”. May I too, have the courage to develop a relationship with the unknown.