The term “potter’s field” has biblical origin, referring to a clay-heavy piece of land worthless for farming and used to bury strangers. Today, the term potter’s field generally refers to the place where the indigent are buried. However, a recent series of articles in the New York Times highlights New York City’s potter’s field on Hart Island, an uninhabited strip of land off the coast of the Bronx in Long Island Sound, where jail inmates bury people in secrecy in unmarked mass graves dug with bulldozers. The series investigates the unfortunate and varied individual tragedies, and systemic failings that stack the odds against people too poor, too old or too isolated and vulnerable in the face of an end-of-life industry that can drain their resources. While many people buried at Potter’s Field are indigent, many are not, and the stories of how they got there may serve as a cautionary tale for the rest of us.
The common expectation today is that families will be handling burial arrangements. But as many of the Hart Island cases demonstrate, families can be lost or outlived, or unaware. So, what options are there for people to ensure their burial wishes are known and they do not end up in a potter’s field? First, you need to know the options for burial or cremation, including the costs. Second, you need to put your wishes into legal documents. Lastly, you need to be certain your friends, family, and decision makers know your plans and wishes.
What are the options for funeral services, and burial or cremation in Arizona? You can choose for yourself and enter into what is known as a “pre-need funeral plan” contract in which you select all or part the funeral services and burial/cremation arrangements, and can pre-pay if desired with funds held in trust, an escrow account, or through an insurance policy. That way, at time of death your family simply calls the funeral home and all arrangements have been taken care of so there is no guess work. In addition, if you pre-paid your estate or loved ones will have no out-of-pocket costs to worry about. Similarly, you can also pre-purchase a plot, columbarium, or niche at a cemetery. Note, you may own an irrevocable pre-need funeral plan regardless of value, a $1,500 burial expense account and a burial plot, or niche and still qualify for Arizona Long Term Care System (ALTCS) benefits to pay for long term care expenses such as assisted living, home health or skilled nursing.
Are you a Veteran? If you meet military service requirements you can be buried at a VA National or state Veterans cemetery. To see all benefits and whether you or a family member qualifies, go to www.cem.va.gov. Burial benefits available include a gravesite in any of the National VA sites with available space, opening and closing of the grave, perpetual care, a Government headstone or marker, a burial flag, and a Presidential Memorial Certificate, at no cost to the family. Cremated remains are buried or inurned in national cemeteries in the same manner and with the same honors as casketed remains. Burial benefits available for spouses and dependents buried in a national cemetery include burial with the Veteran, perpetual care, and the spouse’s or dependents’ name and date of birth and death will be inscribed on the Veteran’s headstone, again at no cost to the family. Eligible spouses and dependents may be buried, even if they predecease the Veteran. The Veteran or the family is still responsible for funeral or memorial arrangements. Some Veterans may also be eligible for Burial Allowances.
Interested in cremation, and want to make a difference? You can donate your body to science and the body will be cremated and cremains returned at no cost to the family. Under these programs the donation may be used for medical research, educational training, and/or tissue donation, depending on the organization. The following are just a few options to consider in Arizona: Willed Body Program (bodydonation.med.arizona.edu), Science Care (www.sciencecare.com), Mayo Clinic (www.mayoclinic.org/body-donation/making-donation), Research For Life (www.researchforlife.org), and Brain and Body Donation Program (www.brainandbodydonationprogram.org).
Who has the duty to handle your burial and how will they know what you want when the time comes? In Arizona, the duty of burying or providing other funeral and disposition arrangements falls to these people, in order: The decedent’s spouse, the person who is designated under the decedent’s health care power of attorney with this specific authority, decedent’s adult children, sibling, grandchildren, grandparent, someone who has exhibited special care and concern for the decedent, or legal Guardian. If none of these individuals is willing or financially able to bury or provide other arrangements, or cannot be located, the county may make the arrangements, including the option for burial at a potter’s field. Note, approximately 300 people are buried annually by state correctional facility inmates at the Maricopa County potter’s field. Here are my recommendations of steps to take to designate someone to handle funeral/burial arrangements and let them know your wishes: (1) Designate someone in your health care power of attorney with specific authority to make your funeral/burial or cremation arrangements and specify your wishes, if known, and then register your health care power of attorney with the Arizona Secretary of State (//www.azsos.gov/services/advance-directives) and provide copies to your Agent and medical providers; (2) write the details of your wishes and arrangements on a separate document with a copy of the pre-need contract and burial plot/niche deed, VA contact information and copy of your DD-214 Form, or copy of body donation directive, if any, and keep it with your legal documents (e.g., Will, Trust, power of attorney documents), and give a copy to your decision makers, family, and/or close friends, and (3) consider providing this information to your place of worship, if any.
If you heed this advice, you will have peace of mind knowing you have taken steps to alleviate extra burden to your family or friends, ensure your funeral and burial wishes are known and honored, and best ensure your body will not end up in a potter’s field in an unmarked grave with strangers.
Please, feel free to get in touch with our elder law firm if you’re curious about funeral arrangements, wills, trusts, and power of attorney information. We provide elder law representation and legal advice, estate planning, and other services for folks throughout Arizona.