Tombs of the Unknown

Except for a few listing gravestones, you could easily mistake the vacant lot for a small park or the exceptionally large backyard of one of the lucky homeowners bordering it. A bus stop and a row of gnarled oaks describes one edge near the street. Two green beer bottles stand attention at a granite monument. There, a bronze plaque identifies the grounds as a “potter’s field.”

Since biblical times, humans have set aside burial grounds for paupers and unknowns. After Judas betrayed Jesus, he passed off his blood money to the priests. They didn’t dare keep the tainted silver. So, according to Matthew, “They took counsel, and bought with them the potter’s field, to bury strangers in.” The priests chose a field where clay was dug for pottery, and the name stuck.

The plaque in the St. Anthony Township cemetery, just east of Stinson Boulevard, details a more recent interment. In 1853, with Minnesota still five years from statehood, Lewis Stone donated a one-acre homestead “to be used exclusively for the uses of the public as a common and free burying grounds forever and never to be used for other purposes whatever.” It was an act of charity that made this quiet neighborhood lot some of the oldest hallowed ground in the metro area (excluding native burial grounds). But the cemetery itself has become something of an indigent.

Searches of historical repositories for the city, county, and state reveal only cursory facts about the miniature necropolis. “We have absolutely nothing on it,” said Jay Hartman, the public works director for St. Anthony. “We maintain it because no one else will.”

This funerary ground is not the only one of its kind. A dozen potter’s fields dot the metro landscape, in various states of disuse and neglect. Many appear to be abandoned lots. Some have been turned into parks appointed with jungle gyms and picnic tables. Some, like the cemetery just off the State Fair midway, or the plot at Fifth Avenue and Eighth Street Southeast, have simply disappeared beneath the asphalt of an expanding city.

These burial grounds were often set next to “poor farms,” public workhouses charged with the care of the state’s destitute at the turn of the last century. One of these was the Ramsey County poor farm, just off White Bear Avenue in Maple Grove. There, in an unidentified parcel the size of a city block, nearly 3,000 bodies lie in unmarked graves. Through the years, nearby construction projects, such as widening the avenue, have accidentally uncovered human remains. In 2001, a protected zone was established to prevent further disturbances. It was modeled on efforts at the Gettysburg Memorial.

“It takes a lot to move a cemetery. You don’t just do it,” said Steven Tibbetts from the Institute of Mortuary Science at the University of Minnesota. In addition to respect for the final resting place, it’s largely an issue of money. Scant records exist, graves were unmarked, and burial techniques were in many cases pre-modern. These realities turn any attempt at disinterment into a major archeological dig. Add to that reburial costs, and it’s easy to understand why the sites are forgotten and the land is slowly adapted to other surface uses.

Mark Trostad’s backdoor is less than ten feet from the edge of the St. Anthony potter’s field. When he moved in, there was a privacy fence the previous owner had hastily assembled, apparently to help sell the property. The sight of a few random gravestones just past the kitchen window frightened away most prospective buyers. But the dead don’t bother Trostad, who sees the cemetery as a park.

“I took it down the first week I was here,” he explained, although he hasn’t managed to extract the posts yet. “I work at home. I like to look at the trees all day.”

Today, the county and Medical Assistance pick up the cost for the indigent dead, burying them in functioning local cemeteries. And the unknown? Well, there just aren’t that many of them. Since 1997, State Health Department statistics reveal only three unidentified deaths in Minnesota. Even in death, Social Security numbers, DNA testing, and computer databases pretty much ensure that the most down-on-their-luck don’t slip into the afterlife without a marker.—John Tribbett