Burying the Masses
On September 13th 2018, I stood in the county cemetery in my hometown of Fresno, California. It swam with more sheriff’s employees than I could count. My dad and I parked on the street alongside Ararat Armenian Cemetery, then walked across the train tracks and street, passing a group of officers standing at the head of the dirt road into Fresno County Cemetery. We’d dressed up, my dad was in gray slacks and a button up short sleeve shirt and I was dressed head to toe in black. Even in a tank top, I realized that wearing black on a 95-degree, sunny day might have been a bad idea, but it felt necessary. We were here to show respect.
On this day the county was burying 740 cremains belonging to indigent people who’d died in Fresno County over the last nine years. Those labeled as indigent are defined as suffering from extreme poverty, lacking, deficient in something specified. Each set of cremains were stored in a 6-inch by 9-inch box, labeled, and placed within two coffin-sized wooden crates.
Prior to the 2018 service, the last mass burial at Fresno County Cemetery had been in 2009. The reasons for which were multiple. A few weeks prior to the ceremony date, the sheriff ’s department advertised the names of those to be buried, in the event that any family and friends wanted to claim their cremains before they were put in the ground, as once interred, cremains cannot be dug up. This notice went out far too late, and with such little time before the burial, the sheriff ’s department pushed all the names out onto their website and offered free reclamation of cremains if proof could be provided that you had a connection to the person you wished to take. Only sixty sets of cremains were ultimately paid for and claimed, leaving the county with 740 to be buried. The ad read:
Please call (559) 600 -3400 or email coroner@fresnosherrif.
org. The last day to collect was September 11, 2018.
Otherwise respects can be paid at 242 N. Hughes Avenue,
Fresno CA 93706: Plot #s 58 and 59 (Fresno Sheriff ’s Office).
The term ‘potter’s field’ comes from the Bible (Matthew [27:7] in reference to a burial field bought by the Jews with the blood money, unsuitable for any other use, of Judas (Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry). The first time I saw the Fresno County Cemetery, which is Fresno’s potter’s field, was in the summer of 2010 when I accompanied my dad to the Holy Cross Cemetery on the corner of Belmont and Hughes, where my maternal great-grandparents were buried. In tracing and recording the genealogy of our family tree my dad wanted to take the pictures of their headstones so that he could upload them to the grave finding site, Findagrave.com: Facebook for the dead.
Upon retiring, my dad began working with the Fresno County Genealogical Society housed within the local library. He’d initially gotten involved with them as he worked on completing our family tree. He then became a volunteer, working on a project of mapping and cataloging cemeteries in Fresno and those individuals buried in them so that families and others could find them if they so wished.
This work eventually led him to the Fresno County Cemeteries and the coroner’s office, which maintained the physical records he needed to complete his mapping and database of names for the cemeteries they owned, which included the potter’s field. Potter’s fields are graveyards for the indigent, the unclaimed dead, or those whose families couldn’t afford or be bothered to bury them. These have often been impermanent places, abandoned after an epidemic, when full, or when the money for upkeep has run out.
The coroner’s office had the records for the county cemetery piled up in a spare room, and with no time to deal with them, they were happy for my dad to take the files back to the library. While transcribing some of the hand-written cemetery records, he came across a 1957 Latter-Day Saints list of burials. “I became incensed when I found many of the names crossed through in pencil, and the word ‘colored’ replacing it,” my dad said. I, too, was troubled by the injustice, the erasing of people’s names, and the seeming lack of dignity given to those buried in mass graves.
I had lived in Boston for a decade by this time, and while I was in Fresno visiting my parents for a couple weeks, I asked to come along on one of my dad’s graveyard outings. We would visit family member’s graves, but I was also very curious to see what a potter’s field looked like. I’d never before heard of a potter’s field. I’d never considered what happened after death to the numerous homeless people I passed on the streets.
After taking the pictures of my great-grandparent’s grave markers, we walked toward the back of the cemetery, beyond an elaborately decorated building, with its pillars and marbled walls. This ornate structure held cremation lots. As we walked on, I wondered if that was where the phrase, “one’s lot in life” had come from. When we reached the chain-link fence that bordered the cemetery, my dad pointed past it towards a mess of weeds. “I don’t think we can get in, but that’s it.” I peered through the holes in the fence, amazed that what we were looking at adjacent to the lush green lawns of Holy Cross Cemetery was also considered a cemetery. It was a barren lot lacking any grave markers or other indicators that it was a place of burial. Anyone could drive right by and all they’d see would be an empty dirt field with a handful of mare’s tails in one corner. Mare’s tails are notoriously nasty weeds. Weed killer has little effect so they have to be pulled out by their roots. These plants stand three feet tall, are thin in stature, and have needles for leaves. They look like nature’s toilet scrub brushes.
As I processed the views of this neglected lot, I struggled for words and meaning. I wondered how many times throughout my life I had driven past here to go to the nearby Catholic cemeteries where my grandparents and great-grandparents were buried, or to go to the zoo or the Roeding Park Playland. It was an empty field, land without a purpose, not land that held the bodies of thousands. My attention rested on the weeds, and all that came to mind was the old cliché, pushing up daisies, or in this case pushing up mare’s tails.
The barren dirt field next to the weedy area was actually the cemetery grounds of the Chinese-American Society. A 2015 article from the local Fox News station, “Resting in Weeds,” shed light on the mare’s tail problem, focusing on the removal of these weeds in the Chinese-American cemetery, but failed to make any mention of the potter’s field next to it. In the article was a quote in response to the weed-ravaged plots: “I would never let my family rest like that.” But someone’s family was resting like that: unseen and unremarkable. The potter’s fields belonged to the county, so the Chinese-American Society had no obligation to remove the weeds in that section. The county did occasionally come out and weed, but it was an expense, and so not a regular occurrence.
I leaned closer into the fence and noticed small, unassuming numbers engraved in the thin stone strips that ran along the field every foot or so, like lines on a sheet of paper. My dad explained that these cement strips had plot numbers etched into them indicating where the graves were. The county used to bury only one person per plot, but they long ago ran out of room, so when that happened they began cremating everyone and burying 450 people per grave. I pictured a dry mix of cremated remains being dumped into a coffin. Dust to dust. In actuality, Fresno placed cremains in individual boxes with identification on them of who the person had once been. Boxes were cataloged in a database, and then put into storage. Once the county reached 450 people who had been cremated, boxed, recorded, and stored, they would open a plot and bury them together.
It seemed crass to be burying so many cremains in one grave: Boxed up, filed away, then buried in a mass grave with hundreds of others. Left for eternity to push up mare’s tails, or at least until some county worker gets consigned to the thankless job of weeding. What I discovered upon telling and retelling this story of my experience with the potter’s fields was that I wasn’t alone in my ignorance. Whenever I told people about “potter’s fields”, I often received blank stares, which I’d then have to follow with some explanation. Others had knowledge of what they were but thought that they were an outdated concept.
After that first visit to the Fresno County Cemetery, I couldn’tstop thinking about it. Each year after, when I’d come home for a visit, I felt the pull to return, just as I did other places that held importance for me. Instead of peering through the fence from the sanctuary of Holy Cross Cemetery, as we had the first time, we eventually found out how to enter the potter’s field, where we could walk amongst the weeds, the coyote holes, the ever-deteriorating Chinese cemetery and headstones, the piles of trash that people had dumped (which my dad would call to have removed), and the occasional piles of plastic flowers, flags, dolls, religious figurines, and candles, that people had brought to pay their respects.
In doing so, we discovered one headstone in the potter’s field, which we would later discover was created in the early nineties by a funeral director, Jim Copner. Jim and his son made the headstone as a memorial for one of the mass burials for those who died between 1979 and 1989. In 1995, when the headstone was placed during a service for those being buried, the local newspaper, The Fresno Bee, covered the event and interviewed eighteen-year-old Eustolia Ramirez who was there to remember her mother, Julia Chavez. Julia had died when Eustolia was five. The family didn’t have money to cover the burial costs, so her mother became one of the 450 buried that day in Row 37, Section S, Grave No. 53.
Dignity Isn’t Free
By 2018, the mare’s tails were gone, perhaps removed in preparation for the service, and the flurry of activity as everything was put into place for the ceremony made for a party-like atmosphere. All the big Fresno news outlets were there. Yet, in the midst of the commotion, it was hard to miss the men working with the backhoe and shovel. We were surprised that the holes were just being dug. But after walking up to the two plots it was evident that we weren’t going to see the burial actually happen. They had already dug the holes, buried the coffins with the cremains and filled it back in — they were merely bringing extra dirt to smooth over the top.
Awnings were set up with white plastic chairs placed beneath them, and a podium was carried by a couple of workers. One man handed out programs: on the front of the 6” x 9” folded cardstock was an angled image of an unidentified nature scene, with tall blades of bright-green grass creeping up from the bottom of the page dotted with red and yellow flowers, a few tree branches leaning in from the left side. Set behind the grass and trees was a river undulating past.
Where was this scene meant to be? If I hadn’t been standing in the vacant dirt lot that was Fresno County Cemetery, or hadn’t known the reality of the landscape of Fresno as hot dry desert, I might have thought, What a nice, comforting picture. It was an image of serenity. It was a lie. One woman, whose brother almost ended up in the mass burial that day, was quoted by the news as saying, “It’s terrible…we have a pet cemetery that is prettier than this.”
She wasn’t wrong.
Underneath the awning where I stood, was a patch of green turf that had been laid down with plastic folding chairs placed on top of it for any mourners who wanted or needed a seat. At some funerals, there is green turf that cemeteries use to lay over the mounds of dirt for families who prefer not to see the land in its raw form. Sometimes this is too much of a reminder that their loved one is dead. Too much of a reminder that they’re burying their dad/brother/wife/daughter within that dirt. Too much of a reminder that the earth is claiming them. Too evocative of the reality of decomposition and decay. As we waited for the service to begin, I watched a county worker set up one of two large flower arrangements with white roses and a bow, and behind him another worker walked past, shovel in hand, his helmeted head bent down past a stone wall with razor wire spiraled across the top.
A few days before the ceremony, Fresno County Cemetery had been home to an unhoused man, which wasn’t uncommon. But the sheriff ’s department came through and physically removed him along with his things, in order to prepare for the upcoming burial and memorial service of nearly eight hundred indigent individuals, some of whom, like him, may have been unhoused when they died. That he was cleared out so the rest of us could come and pay our respects to those like him felt wrong, hypocritical. Would it be too stark a reminder of how as a society we have failed too many to actually see an embodiment of who we were memorializing? Many of those buried that day may not have been homeless, but were living in that tenuous margin of being too poor to have any agency in where and how they were buried.
Dignity isn’t free.
The path that leads someone to a potter’s field as their final resting place is a complex, layered, messy one. Actually, there isn’t just one path, but many, which often begin long before the death bed, that may lead to the same dismal end. A few years earlier, in 2015, a woman appeared around the corner from my parents’ house, the woman stood on the sidewalk adjacent to a neighbor’s backyard fence. A shopping cart, full of her things, was parked on the street curb nearby. She stood there for three days. During that time, my mom periodically went out for walks to confirm whether she was still there. It was the fall of 2015, and I was staying with my parents while I taught a semester at a local community college. One afternoon, as I drove past the corner near where this woman stood, I wondered why she’d chosen that spot. It seemed that she might have been trying to obey city loitering laws to avoid getting moved along; she was in a residential area, not in front of any shop, and she was on the side of the house, so out of view from windows and not obstructing doorways or walkways. As a woman, I could also imagine that it might be a safer option than others. If she were to be attacked there, possibly people would hear her screams in a quiet neighborhood at night, someone might notice a struggle and be able to intervene. It was also notable that she never sat while she was there. Someone once told me that this was because if she didn’t lean or sit, the police couldn’t make her move, yet I was unable to verify whether this was an actual law on the books in Fresno at the time. For those three days, she remained on that sidewalk corner, minus any time, I have to assume, when she may have left to go sit down for a bit, sleep, piss, shit, and generally be a living person. Why she decided to move when she did, I can only guess. It certainly wasn’t a permanent solution of any kind, but maybe she’d found somewhere better to go, maybe someone finally came along and asked her to move, or perhaps she just decided to give up her position as living statue, the endless standing becoming too much.
Growing up in Fresno during the 1980s and 1990s, I don’t recall homelessness being the ubiquitous thing it is now. One obvious reason for this is that it wasn’t until the 1980s that the United States really saw a substantial jump in homelessness. At this time shrinking economic opportunities coincided with decreased safety-net protections (Padgett et al. 3). Bigger cities were hit the hardest. It wasn’t until 2004, when homeless encampments in Fresno, such as Tent City (located on the West side of town under Highway 180) started gaining traction, which was a few years after I’d moved away to Boston. The Poverello House (a homeless service charity in Fresno) upgraded tents that sat on wood pallets, which they’d been using for temporary housing, by moving people into a neighborhood of individual-size toolsheds that they named the Village of Hope (Rhodes). Yet hope wasn’t enough, and soon after the 2008 recession, things got worse. With five thousand people calling Tent City home by 2013, it had grown large enough to draw attention from academics who wrote theses on it (Speer) and journalists from news outlets and publications, including NPR and GQ, who came to write articles on its inhabitants and their lives there.
This is when Fresno officially disbanded Tent City, possibly due to some of the attention it had received, requiring the encampment’s residents to find other places to shelter throughout the city. With few options, some like the woman on the corner near my parents’ house, moved north into various residential neighborhoods. Many found their way to the live on along the banks of the myriad of irrigation canals that snake their way through Fresno. Others wound up breaking into abandoned homes in West or Central Fresno, a leftover consequence of the 2008 housing market collapse. Sometimes the illegal inhabitants of these abandoned homes would accidentally start fires, often in an effort to keep warm, have light, or to cook with, and sometimes those fires would get out of control and burn the houses down.
For years, each morning my dad has awoken before sunrise and walked four miles along the embankments of the canals, one of which passes right behind their home. On that same visit home, I decided to accompany him one morning, which was how I found myself walking in semidarkness at 5:00 a.m. along the canal. My dad carried a walking stick with him, not for support but to beat away one of the many packs of stray dogs that might pass by him and become aggressive. Only a few minutes into our walk, and just houses down from my parents’ place, the dark air began mingling with a stringent, toxic smell. I put my hand to my face to try to protect myself from the burning I felt in my nostrils.
“The neighbor’s burning trash again,” my dad replied to my actions and the horrified look on my face. I responded with shouting about how disgusting that was and he quickly shushed me, not wanting to draw attention from the people doing the trash burning. As we moved farther along, we passed by large piles of garbage, and on the end of one pile sat a man surrounded by his belongings. When I first saw him, I thought he was a child’s doll — moonlight hitting a porcelain face staring out from a sleeping bag — but as I stared back, the eyes blinked.
By this point, people in Fresno were calling for something to be done about the rise in homelessness. But the reality was less about a large spike in numbers and more about a slight growth in numbers combined with the displacement of the people who’d previously resided in Tent City and other encampments who now were living unhoused directly alongside the housed. As my dad and I returned home that morning, I was grateful for the sun rising and to no longer be out on the canal banks in the dark. It seemed to me that the homeless were the least scary thing we’d encountered on our walk compared to the person illicitly burning trash in their yard and polluting the air with toxins, the threat of stray dog attacks and piles of dangerous garbage mostly being dumped by homeowners in the area. Yet none of those things seemed to arouse as much passion, or bring out the pitchforks, quite like the threat of the homeless “infestation.” In Fresno, as with many other places, the fight over public space was beginning to heat up.
Right of Access: Private Property – Get Off My Lawn
Who has the right to exist, to be visible, in public spaces? This is a question that Boston has been negotiating in regards to the Boston Common since its inception. The Common is the oldest public park in the US. Established in 1634, it’s been used for grazing livestock; Puritanical punishments, including a whipping post, pillory, and stocks; hanging people; a redcoat encampment during the Revolutionary War; public oratory, discourse, and public gatherings, including a rally led by Martin Luther King Jr.; protests against the Vietnam War; the 2017 Women’s March; general entertainment and recreation, including picnics, walks, sitting on park benches, and tai chi; and more organized activities such as baseball games in summer and ice-skating on Frog Pond in winter.
The Freedom Trail Foundation, a tourist website, notes “Boston Common is open for all to enjoy.” But this was not so. When I volunteered at the foot care clinic in Boston, one man told me how the city was clearing out the homeless for the summer by making sleeping in the Boston Common park a fineable offense so that tourists wouldn’t see them. He went on to claim that the government was responsible for all the opioid deaths inflicting swaths of the homeless population across the country. His gaze bore into mine as he spoke. “How else do you explain how fentanyl so quickly replaced heroin, huh? They’re trying to get rid of us.” It would come out a few years later that much of the opioid crisis was tied to the pharmaceutical industry’s push for profit amid a display of capitalism at its finest. Of course, there wasn’t any covert operation by the US government to kill off the homeless, but he wasn’t wrong in that they did want them out of sight.
Between 2010 and 2020, it seems that as homelessness grew, or at least became more visible, the fight over public space intensified in cities all across the United States and the world:
• In San Francisco in 2019, residents of the Mission District paid for and installed twelve large boulders on the sidewalks in their neighborhood to deter “what they described as a year of flagrant drug-dealing and unpredictable behavior. Housing advocates and other civically minded critics were quick to call the boulders out as anti-homeless architecture” (Ho).
• In 2017, Fresno passed the Unhealthy and Hazardous Camping Act in 2017 in response to the rising voices demanding something be done about the visible homeless problem. This made camping in tents or lean-to shelters on both public and private property illegal across Fresno.
• In Hungary, a social affairs state secretary bluntly stated that legislation in the form of anti-homelessness laws seemed to be designed to dictate use of space for the homeless versus the citizen. In other words, if one is homeless, then for all intents and purposes they are considered stateless noncitizens.
When calls for reducing homelessness and political war-waging over public access reach a crescendo, as they have in recent years, the government seems to have two primary tools for dealing with it: sequestration/corralling or criminalization. Either cordon off the offending groups or try to police their way out of the problem, with visibility at the core of both options. In one photo I came across, a man stands alongside a tent beside the fence of an abandoned property with a handwritten sign that reads, “If not here, then where?” (Policy Advocacy Clinic)
Modern Day Hoovervilles
In 1939, John Steinbeck wrote in The Grapes of Wrath:
And then the raids—the swoop of armed deputies on the squatters’ camps. Get out. Department of Health orders. This camp is a menace to health. Where we gonna go?
That’s none of our business. We got orders to get you out of here…[and] the tractors moved in and pushed the tenants out…
In spite of all these state and federal rulings, the reality is much more complex, and regular sequestration and criminalization of unhoused people still occurs. With regard to that first option — corralling and sequestering groups of people experiencing chronic homelessness — tent cities are the most obvious way of doing this. Usually set in parts of town where there’s little commerce and therefore not much public activity, these locations can be out of sight and out of mind. An NPR article notes how the growing encampments in California “evoke shantytown ‘Hoovervilles,’ where hundreds of thousands of destitute Americans lived during the Great Depression. The encampments are…fueling a debate over poverty and inequality in one of the nation’s wealthiest states” (Westervelt).
One of the most infamous encampments is Skid Row in Los Angeles, California. As Los Angeles Times reporter Steve Lopez notes of Skid Row, “[it] smells like the death of hope” (Dateline). But for decades now, Los Angeles has tolerated Skid Row’s existence because its fifty square blocks have acted as a sort of barrier, penning in and containing a large mass of people in homelessness. But as the homeless crisis and the number of people on the streets grew in California, the borders of places like Skid Row began to creep out or dissolve completely. There wasn’t enough space for everyone, and the poorest of the poor began to comingle with the richest of the rich, resulting in conflict. Venice Beach, an exclusive neighborhood in Los Angeles, is one battle site where people who live there have fought over the public spaces with those who are homeless and who are also using those spaces. In response to these issues, Los Angeles residents voted to increase their taxes to raise money for affordable housing. Yet when the city tried to use the money to build the affordable housing, neighborhood after neighborhood fought against it being built near them (Dateline). As encampments grow too large and spill into actively used space, such as shopping and business districts or residential neighborhoods, as seen with Skid Row and Tent City, the homeless are no longer seen as being successfully corralled. But being segregated to certain areas of town can produce unwanted consequences for those experiencing chronic homelessness, whether in shelters or encampments. Shelters and affordable housing are also often only allowed and placed in lower-income areas or on the outskirts of town, making them inconvenient for accessing necessary social and health services, and they are often too far away to commute for work.
I’m struck by how loud what isn’t being said can be heard, like a dog whistle of mutual exclusivity being sung: us versus them, quality versus mediocrity, morality versus immorality, citizen versus homeless person. Without affordable housing, homeless encampments can sometimes be the safest and most preferred place of shelter for some. They don’t operate under the same auspices of governmental control that shelters might, which means there’s potential for more drug use and criminal activity. Yet on the flip side, it also means that people have the opportunity to govern themselves, they can better create trusted communities, maintain some semblance of control over how they live, and possibly avoid or reduce their level of institutionalization.
As anthropologist Robert Desjarlais writes in his 1997 book, Shelter Blues: Sanity and Selfhood Among the Homeless:
The homeless can be felt too much. Those living on the streets and in shelters are disturbing because they threaten assumed paradigms of meaning…It is thus fitting that… shelters [be] set up … out of sight and beyond the reach of most social and economic commerce…[And] the most valued sites are policed in such a way that the poor and others are forcefully kept away. We maintain and control the resources, the knowledge, the means of production and visibility.
Criminalization of poor and homeless people is not a modern invention. Under the guise of quality-of-life laws, the homeless are pushed out and driven away. This practice stems from a long history of sweeping the undesirable along. The United Kingdom’s 1824 Vagrancy Act states that “…every person wandering abroad and lodging in any barn or outhouse, or in any deserted or unoccupied building, or in the open air, or under a tent, or in any cart or wagon, [not having any visible means of subsistence] and not giving a good account of himself or herself…” (The National Archives). American colonists developed vagrancy laws, which stemmed from the English Poor Laws. Coming into the nineteenth century, some cities and states created “ugly laws” that tried to ban people who were diseased, deformed, maimed, or mutilated. In the late 1800s, there were “sundown towns” in the Southern United States that banned African Americans from being out on the streets after dark. Cities in California did the same to Mexicans, Native Americans, and Chinese Americans. After the Dust Bowl and Great Depression drove people into California looking for work, California tried to outlaw these “Okies” from coming into the state (Policy Advocacy Clinic).
As instances across the world, particularly in California, have shown, finding a solution to homeless encampments and their visibility is desired, but many don’t want that solution to land in their proverbial backyards. When people have nowhere to sleep, sit, or perform basic bodily functions privately, they are forced to do these things in public spaces meant to be shared with all in the community. They’re then penalized through citations, jailing, and other means that push them further into the system in ways that only perpetuate their state of homelessness and poverty, and the cycle repeats. Is the “choice” to live in a tent under a highway or on a canal really a choice?
Public health concerns do exist and need to be taken into consideration, but that means public health for everyone. Community members cite fears over fire risk, violence, and disease (Barry-Jester), yet often the ones most at risk are those in the camps. Although encampments are not up to public health standards, the consequences of being moved on without being placed in housing are also very serious. Numerous studies and organizations have shown that each time someone is moved from an encampment, they run the risk of losing so much:
medical and legal documents,
… any sense of stability and safety.
These are things that hold meaning, tools to survive, small comforts, all being expeditiously gathered. People take what they can before the highway crews come through to clear out the area, what the campers in this area refer to as the Caltrans shuffle (Barry- Jester). It can be difficult, if not impossible, to imagine what it must feel like to frantically have to pack and move everything you own every few days or weeks. What’s not difficult to understand, though, is how in the midst of such moves, crucial items, such as walkers, identification cards, and prescriptions, are lost and how devastating that could be (Herring).
Each time someone is cited for not moving on or for some other activity that falls within the purview of anti-homelessness laws, this creates a knock-on effect of misery and frustration:
A fine is issued that they can’t afford to pay→ a bench warrant is issued→ with no fixed address, they may miss any notices to appear in court and hearing dates → they get arrested→ miss crucial appointments necessary to receiving benefits → the likelihood of remaining on the streets increases, as well as engendering a further distrust of and disenfranchisement from the system. (Barry-Jester, Desjarlais, Herring, Hodge et al., Padgett et al., National Coalition of Homelessness).
Often when sanitation crews come through, people are prevented from collecting any of the belongings of those who aren’t there at the time, which means that people are sometimes too afraid to leave camp, resulting in many unintended consequences. Sociologist, Chris Herring provides a haunting scene in his 2019 article, “Complaint-Oriented Policing: Regulating Homelessness in Public Space,” that exemplifies such consequences:
The threat of property destruction [and loss] resulted in homeless people avoiding the hospital, missing social service appointments, and being unable to hold a job…One of the elderly men who lost his property while hospitalized had called my cell phone before calling 911, as he lay paralyzed on a city sidewalk during a stroke, in hopes I could get to camp to watch his property before he was taken to the ER.
Who is Grievable?
Historically, across the centuries and the world, people have been and will continue to be buried in mass graves. Some lost to epidemic or natural disaster, others to the horrors of war or the evils of mass murders in the name of politics or ethnic cleansing. In the blog post, “Precariousness and Grievability – When is Life Grievable?” Judith Butler writes, “Only under conditions in which the loss would matter does the value of the life appear. Thus, grievability is a presupposition for the life that matters.”
We grieve people who fought and died in wars, and those who died from famine, disease, or tragedy. We grieve them because we believe their lives had value and we may see them as brave or as victims of evil. We make the moral judgment that they were not perpetrators of their own demise, and therefore are worthy of our grief.
There are military cemeteries and war memorials dedicated to those who have died in battle. There are the locations of horrific tragedy and violence that become museums and sites of pilgrimage and tourism: the concentration camps of Germany and Austria, the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. We name to remember, and in instances where we don’t have names we have something like the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, an important stand-in for soldiers whose bodies may have never been identified or found, for soldiers who never made it home.
In the United States, individuality is revered. It’s a nation born of rugged individualism, inextricably linked to our personhoods, to our identities. In such a society, not being named is shameful. Dying anonymous becomes not so much a choice, as much as a social stigma for having been connected to a life seen as less than. So, I began transcribing names off headstones in the potter’s fields I visited. Names that were already there for people to see. Yet, knowing that not many people came to visit, let alone knew of their existence, I felt a pull to type up as many of them as I could, to try and further memorialize them. Maybe someday others would see these names, read them, speak them aloud.
Each year in the United States, the names of all 2,753 people killed in the 9/11 attacks are read off in totality surrounded by the memorial, which has the names of every victim etched into the panels surrounding the reflecting pools that now stand where both towers of the World Trade Center once stood. It’s painful, it’s beautiful, it’s necessary.
That day in Fresno during the mass burial to memorialize almost eight hundred people who had died in poverty, homelessness, or without friends or family, both the Catholic priest and the Unitarian minister spoke of naming. The priest impressing on us that God would remember the names of those we didn’t know in life. The minister recited a poem,
“A great poet once wrote,
Each of us has a name given by the source of life, and given by our parents.
Each of us has a name given by our stature and given by our smile.
Each of us has a name given by the mountains and given by our walls.
Each of us has a name given by the stars and given by our neighbors.
Each of us has a name given by our wrongdoing and given by our longing.
Each of us has a name given by our enemies and given by our love.
Each of us has a name given by our celebration and given by our work.
Each of us has a name given by the seasons and given by our blindness.
Each of us has a name given by the sea and given by our death.”
The Unitarian minister finished his sermon by assuring us that the sheriff had documented the names of those being buried. Yet, no names would be read nor printed on the program that day. Did those being buried not deserve to have their names seen and heard?
It would have taken too long. People are busy.
The Space that Remains
We change the physical space through which we move via the erection or eradication of barriers. Fences that keep people out, sidewalks and crosswalks that keep pedestrians contained, large pieces of concrete placed strategically in front of buildings to keep cars from being driven into them, laws saying where your body can exist. Where do we have the right to be? Where do we belong? We alter spaces, but they also alter us. They shape our behavior as well as how we see ourselves and one another. The more spaces someone is barred from existing in, the more marginalized their existence becomes. Even spaces that they aren’t explicitly barred from going into, such as a coffee shop, they may self-police and not go in out of discomfort and fear of being othered. When someone is unhoused, in addition to the daily business of surviving, they are also constantly negotiating space.
Perhaps the public witnessing of such injustice and inhuman living quarters regularly is the necessary impetus for communities and leadership to start actively exploring how homelessness can be solved instead of merely hidden. Time and again, it seems that when those experiencing homelessness are seen, it is only in the form of a blight: something to be weeded out so as not to dirty up the nicer parts of town. All this warring over space leads to social injustice in the form of economic and health disparities. Many who are homeless have the tri-morbidity of poor physical and mental health and drug or alcohol dependence, which may lead them down a path where, even in death, as is evidenced by the potter’s field, they are forced to the far reaches of “wasted” space: the only space that remains.
As my dad left the cemetery after the mass burial on that hot September day, we dragged the bottoms of our shoes along the dirt-paved road trying to get out all the burrs stuck to the soles. We were quiet, our spirits low. We both agreed that a lackluster service was better than no service, yet something about it had left me feeling hollow and a little gross. It had felt disingenuous in a perfunctory sort of way. Yet, while the service conducted in Fresno seemed rather lacking, the sheriff ’s department had meticulously documented all the names, ages, and dates of birth and death that they had for each individual, along with the location/plot where they were interred that day in Fresno: something that hadn’t always happened in the past.
Perhaps my feelings were rooted internally. I didn’t want to be a tourist. I didn’t want to be a gawker, who could tick the box of “concerned citizen” with minimal effort made. I wanted to be a witness to something powerful, but this made me realize that what I also wanted was to have a larger part in working towards a solution that afforded dignity to all.
When we got to the car, I took my black flats off and tipped them upside down, watching the sand pour out of them. A crescent-shaped layer of dirt had caked onto the tops of my feet, which carried the stark reminder of disparity between the rich and poor, the beloved and the forgotten. The potter’s field had no tree-lined paved roads winding through avenues that housed gothic reminders of opulence, no perfectly manicured lawns with benches to sit and contemplate loved ones gone. Once the circus of today died down, the party disbanded and each of us home, all that would remain would be a dirt field, scored with strips of cement with numbers etched in. Trash would be dumped; someone might bed down here for a night, a week, or longer; coyotes would come back and re-dig their holes. Mare’s tails would grow once more, standing tall to watch over those who rested in this place.
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