In modern times, you likely know where most of your immediate deceased family is buried. If a relative or friend died, you visited their grave which likely has a clear marker or indicator of whose resting place this is. While this is the norm today, it wasn’t always this way.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- What’s a Common Grave?
- What are Common Graves Used For?
- How is a Common Grave Different from a Mass Grave?
- Modern Use of Common Graves
Different types of grave markers are found in graves across the country in this day and age, but in the past, it was much different. In the recent past, there were a variety of graves used. The type would depend on the individual’s family, funeral funds, and cause of death.
Some people were not buried alone. Instead, they rested in what’s known as a common grave. In this guide, we’ll uncover what a common grave is and why they existed. More importantly, we’ll talk about whether these graves are still in use.
What’s a Common Grave?
A common grave is a grave that belongs to the cemetery owner. Unlike a private grave that is purchased by a family or individual, a common grave serves a commercial purpose.
For those who didn’t have the means to pay for a private burial, the cemetery personnel would bury people who died over a few days within a single grave.
A common grave has no headstone or marker. The burial itself might still be paid for by the family of the deceased, but the records would be less clear.
Because the cost of a headstone or other grave marker was (and still is) expensive, many people would find themselves unable to pay for either their own or a family member’s private grave.
You might have heard of this type of grave referred to as a potter’s field or paupers’ grave. Though there are some differences between a pauper’s grave and a common grave, the name “potter’s field” has a biblical origin.
In the Bible, priests use a potter’s field to ensure the burial of strangers, the poor, and criminals. It’s paid for with the coins paid to Judas Iscariot for identifying Jesus. Since this was “blood money,” the name symbolizes the red color of the fields where potters find their clay for the production of ceramics. The name itself evokes the image of blood-stained grounds.
What are Common Graves Used For?
While pauper graves have a long history, common graves have been common since the 1830s until modern day. They’ve recently fallen out of practice for most families, but that doesn’t mean they can’t still be spotted.
These types of graves are especially common in The United Kingdom and Ireland. In one Irish cemetery, approximately 25 percent of the graves are considered common graves.
Funeral costs are notoriously expensive, even in the past. If someone couldn’t afford to purchase a private grave for themselves or a family member, a common grave was an affordable solution. While the family still paid for the burial itself, the plot is significantly less expensive or even free depending on the cemetery.
Multiple coffins were buried into the same grave. In more recent times, ashes would also be spread into these graves. These graves were used for:
- Anyone who couldn’t afford their own private plot
- Some criminals (usually those who were Christened or who committed less-extreme crimes)
- The homeless
- Those who died by suicide
- Patients who passed away in a hospital
The church or local community would typically pay for the burial itself in the case of a criminal, ill patient, or poor person’s death. While there would be no marker on the grave with the name of the people buried, this was an affordable, accessible choice for many.
How is a Common Grave Different from a Mass Grave?
There is a lot of confusion around whether a common grave is the same thing as a mass grave. This is understandable. By definition, a common grave (a single grave that contains multiple bodies) is a type of mass grave, but the connotation is generally different.
A mass grave is any grave with multiple bodies, and those bodies might not be identified before burial. Mass graves, in a historical context, are typically used for these purposes:
- Sanitation in the case of an epidemic
- War or other brutality
- Burying people after a natural disaster
- Reaction to genocide
These are different reasons than common graves. While a common grave is a necessity due to a lack of funds, mass graves are more often used in times of war, disease, or disaster.
That being said, mass graves also don’t include markers and might not be easy to identify at all. However, unlike common graves, these won’t usually be found within cemeteries at all.
Modern Use of Common Graves
Despite today’s view of funeral practices, common graves are found in modern cities around the world. A lot of people today might find themselves unable to afford a funeral. In addition, many bodies still go unclaimed each year.
Sometimes local communities, organizations, and religious groups have money for these situations. They donate towards ensuring these people have a proper burial, and these graves resemble any other.
In some places, there isn’t enough funding to cover this need, and common graves are a solution. Today, common graves are used across the United States when:
- Individuals are not claimed by family after death
- The deceased was homeless, indigent, and had no next-of-kin
- The family of the deceased could not afford burial costs
- The family preferred a common grave
The most well-known common grave in the United States is Hart Island. This island rests in the Long Island Sound just north of the Bronx in New York City.
While Hart Island served many purposes, it’s most well-known is as a potter’s field or common grave. Run by the New York City Department of Corrections, more than one million people are buried on this island.
Burials continue today on Hart Island, and people are laid to rest in unmarked, common graves. In the past, access to the island was not allowed. After much petitioning and activism, the Hard Island Project improved access to this island and made these burial records easily available to families.
Hart Island might be the most well-known potter’s field, but it’s not alone. These are found across the United States and the entire globe, even though they’re often hiding in plain sight.
Researchers and anthropologists are working hard to piece together records from these common graves to help families today find the graves of loved ones and relatives.
Understanding Common Graves
It’s deeply unsettling to consider how poverty, illness, or misfortune could result in one’s final resting place being a common grave. These anonymous burial plots might be affordable or the only option for some communities, but they don’t preserve the legacy of the deceased. While times are changing, it’s important to create a strategy to ensure you and your loved ones have your end-of-life wishes met.
To create your own sharable burial plan, start end-of-life planning. There’s no time like the present to make sure everything is in order. Naming your next-of-kin, making decisions about your burial, and documenting your wishes is key to avoiding an anonymous fate.
- “Burial Plot Types.” University of Leeds: Special Collections. Library.Leeds.AC.uk.
- “Common Graves.” Mount Jerome Cemetery. MountJerome.ie.
- “History.” The Hart Island Project. HartIsland.net.
- “161. THE PURCHASE OF "THE POTTER'S FIELD ‘(Matt. 27:6-8 and Acts 1:18, 19)’” Levend Water. Levendwater.org.