Photo Essays

A Potter’s Field in Arizona — When you are too poor to bury your child, your heart still breaks into a million pieces, maybe more so.

Likewise, it is heartwrenching to learn a family member’s body was buried here because officials could not locate relatives in time.  One woman I spoke to was devastated to learn — too late — that her father had been buried in such a desolate location. In this gravel-strewn cemetery, marked by a chainlink fence, only a small round metal plate marked his grave. After she finally found her father’s burial spot, the woman said she immediately planted colorful plastic flowers along the grave site from top to bottom. She drives out from Phoenix at least once a week to pay her respects.

White Tanks Cemetery in Maricopa County, thirty miles west of Phoenix, uses prison labor from Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s Tent City Jail to bury the dead. Prisoners wearing black-and-white-striped uniforms lift caskets into the ground and attend burial services. Bodies are buried here because either the family didn’t have enough money for funeral expenses or else the bodies could not be identified. Those graves are marked as Jane, John or Baby Doe’s.

Burying bodies in the county’s potter’s field as part of a chain gang is usually a volunteer assignment for prisoners at Tent City. An armed officer watches over them. If there is no family around, inmates have been known to step in to help honor the dead by singing and praying. A chaplain performs a simple ceremony — reading the 23rd psalm — and then inmates sing “Amazing Grace.”

The cemetery has come a long way since it was created in 1994.  Anonymous donor’s have worked over the past few years to clean it up and install benches for bereaved family members. Even though it is a rock-filled, desolate cemetery, loved ones of the dead have made it a beautiful memorial. Nearly 3,000 bodies are buried here.

You can tell the graves which are frequently visited by family. Sadly, most of the graves in the baby and children’s row are untended, strewn with torn and ragged stuffed animals. The saddest graves of all are those marked with the words “Baby Doe.”

Once a year, a group of volunteers hold a candlelight vigil and scatter flowers over the graves in an attempt to remember those so tragically forgotten.

I visited this cemetery at sunset, when the fading light was golden with promise. Nearby, FA16 fighter jets practiced manuevers at Luke Air Force Base. I was both saddened and touched by visiting this Potter’s Field and I just pray all who are buried there are at peace.

Hector was well loved. In life, he loved cars and tequila.

The Baby Row — May God Bless Them

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