Potter’s Field is the 2011 crime noir comic written by the estimable Mark Waid (previously interviewed here!) with art by Paul Azaceta. It stars an anonymous investigator, who uses the apt moniker “John Doe”, who has taken on a mission: identifying the bodies buried in New York City’s Hart Island. The island is the eastern-most part of the Bronx and has been used as, well, a potter’s field, i.e., a burial ground for the indigent and/or unidentified, since the mid-nineteenth century. As with all stories in the crime genre, it brings a number of interesting legal issues to the fore, and we’ll be looking at both the idea of the potter’s field and a rather unusual species of identity theft. Spoilers within.
I. The Potter’s Field
First of all, it turns out that Waid’s portrayal of Hart Island is pretty accurate. Hart Island is a real place, but access to the island is highly restricted. Members of the public wanting to visit must do so pursuant to the authority of the City of New York Department of Corrections. The City owns the entire island, and the DoC has essentially exclusive control over access. You can now actually go to the island—you didn’t used to be able to at all—but only to a designated area close to the ferry. You cannot generally access the burial areas, and certainly not unattended. Many of the burials are actually mass graves. Any body that finds its way to an NYC morgue and goes unclaimed winds up here. This includes a lot of unidentified people—the homeless, patients that appear without ID in city hospitals and die there, etc.—but also a lot of identified people who are either without family or whose families are unable (or unwilling) to claim and bury them. A lot of prisoners fall into that latter category, but there have been a few fairly famous people who have died in poverty who are buried there. The Hart Island Project is a non-profit that actually does exactly what John Doe is trying to do: find out who these people were and let their families know. Of course, the Project does this with FOI requests and database research, not blackmail, extortion, and violence. But, in short: Hart Island is exactly what Waid describes it as.
Why do public burial grounds exist? Because, as a country whose cultural heritage is undeniably part of the broader Western Christian tradition, Americans still largely bury our dead. Some Asian cultures—Japan, for example—mostly use cremation, and Tibetan culture uses “sky burial,” where the deceased are placed on exposed promontories to be carried away by scavenger birds. Many pre-Christian European cultures also practiced cremation—e.g., Viking floating pyres—but once Christianity became the dominant religion, Europeans started burying their dead, and burial remains the most common form of disposal of human bodies in both Europe and North America. It’s just what we do.
So if the state finds itself in custody of a human body, cultural decency requires that it be buried somewhere. Or at least it did when these practices were established, and there isn’t much political will to change them. Cemeteries are too much a part of American culture, and as the place already exists, we may as well keep doing it. Burials at public cemeteries are generally without much fanfare, as these are by definition people for whom there is no money to put together a funeral service of any kind. Burials at Hart Island in particular are normally conducted by prisoners, stacking simple unadorned coffins twenty-five in a row, three high, with two rows per grave. That’s 150 coffins per grave. The Hart Island Project has done some really good work in identifying who has been buried where, but there are an enormous number of bodies in the cemetery, dating back over a century and a half.
More to the point, it is illegal to simply dump bodies. A sense of public morality—not to mention public health—led to laws and statutes making the improper disposal of human remains a crime in every jurisdiction in the US. Exactly how serious a crime and what duties are imposed on those who find themselves in possession of or with knowledge of such remains can vary quite a bit, but it is pretty much universally the case that you have to interact with the authorities or someone with a state-granted license when it comes to human remains. The police, the coroner, a funeral home, somebody. You can’t just bury the body in the backyard or chuck it in the wood stove (or wood chipper).
For similar reasons, governments have largely decided to bury the indigent/unidentified rather than use methods which would be objectively more “efficient”, such as simply sending them to the local landfill. That’s just not the civilized thing to do. Whoever these people were, they were human beings, and it just seems wrong not to give them at least enough respect in their deaths to separate their bodies from garbage. Be that as it may, it’s also illegal, and most state legislatures have enacted statutes requiring local governments to provide for the burial of the dead. Doesn’t have to be much, but it has to be something.
As a point of trivia: So why are burial grounds for the indigent called “potter’s fields”? Well the name comes from the Christian Bible, Matthew 27:3-10, describing the field which the Jewish authorities are said to have purchased with the money Judas had received for the betrayal of Jesus. The field was then used as a burial place for foreigners. But why was that field called a “potter’s field”? Probably because it had too much clay and not enough soil. That would make it unsuitable for agriculture but ideal for gathering the raw material for ceramics. It would also work just fine for burying the dead. In cultures with a Christian heritage, i.e., Europe and North America, public burial grounds for the indigent and unidentified have been called “potter’s fields” since at least the sixteenth century.
II. Identity Theft
The other issue is the scheme John Doe discovers in the third chapter, i.e., a group of people stealing the identities of recently deceased persons for what amounts to identity theft. This sounds a little like the modern practice of ghosting, in which the identity thief basically assumes the identity of the deceased person for the purposes of creating a legal alter ego. Most bureaucratic functionaries don’t bother to cross-check things like birth certificates and death certificates, nor are they likely to be all that interested in whether the person in front of them was actually born on the date on the documents. If you’ve got what appears to be a proper set of documents, they’re likely to just give you the ID that you need and move on to the next person in line. So this kind of thing can be surprisingly effective for the purposes of avoiding detection by legal authorities.
But that’s not what’s going on here. Instead of creating more-or-less viable alter egos, these guys use the personal information of the deceased to apply for credit cards, which they max out and never repay. They stick to people who die unnoticed, have no family or loved ones, etc., and it’s quite a racket.
Identity theft is generally illegal, which shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. But it should be noted, as Waid seems to understand, that this isn’t just a consumer protection provision. If that were the case, it would be hard to see why this kind of thing would be illegal. After all, the people whose identities are being stolen are dead, so it’s not like they care all that much about their credit score, now do they? And as they have no heirs, it’s not like the estate is even going to be opened. What’s important to recognize that while “identity theft” as commonly thought of is mostly a problem for the person whose identity is being stolen, it also constitutes run-of-the-mill fraud, in that it involves supplying false—though plausible—information to things like banks, credit card companies, etc. These sorts of things are crimes—largely felonies—completely independent of the identity theft issues. And they ought to be, because losses inflicted upon banks and credit card companies frequently find their way back to the general public, either in the form of taxpayers or investors. This doesn’t wind up hurting any one person or entity all that much, but it’s still a cost that adds up. It’s illegal, and it should be.
Potter’s Field is an engaging story that looks at an area of society not commonly remarked upon. There are a lot of people who die alone, and some of them do have family. Families of people who just disappear can experience significant heartache wondering where their loved one has ended up. This latter reason is largely why the Hart Island Project exists, i.e., providing a way for people to identify the graves of their loved ones. It may not seem like much, but it can bring a sense of closure and peace to grieving families. That’s what John Doe tries to do, in his own way: give a name to the nameless dead.