Charity's final act


There's a patch of grass at Rose Hill Cemetery in Hagerstown that's deceptively plain.

The only thing marking each grave is a numbered metal disk. Most of the disks are invisible, worn deep into the soil.

The field looks bucolic, undisturbed.

This is the potter's field, a common nickname for a group of paupers' graves.

The 300 people or so people buried here were likely poor, alone or both when they died.

These unnoticed graves sit on the outskirts of more than 40,000 plots adorned with headstones, flowers and other memorials.

Washington County government buys eight parcels at a time to bury indigent people.

Rose Hill Cemetery sells the plots at a deeply discounted price.

"We feel that somebody should do it," said Bill Divelbiss Sr., the nonprofit cemetery's manager and executive vice president. "We're willing to help people in conditions like that."


The county also pays a set amount to whichever funeral home handles the arrangements, Doug Fiery of Douglas A. Fiery Funeral Home in Hagerstown said.

Divelbiss said the county has helped bury paupers since the 1930s.

As humanitarian as the practice is, though, it may be outdated.

A hundred years ago, it was up to each county to take care of its own unclaimed dead bodies.

That changed in 1949, when a law established the Anatomy Board of Maryland, board Director Ronn Wade said. The board was created to end the shortage of cadavers available for medical research.

The law says that the Anatomy Board, based in Baltimore, has the right to take possession of unclaimed bodies after a 72-hour period of searching for relatives.

Surgeons, paramedics, emergency medical technicians and other medical professionals use cadavers to practice their work.

Bodies of people who had infectious diseases can't be used and are cremated, Wade said.

When Wade moved into his job in 1974, most counties in Maryland still had pauper burial accounts, in spite of the law.

Wade was surprised to hear that Washington County still does it. He assumed that every county had phased out the practice and that there were no potter's fields left in the state.

Doug Fiery of Douglas A. Fiery Funeral Home in Hagerstown said he thought the Anatomy Board only gets involved when people are registered to leave their body to research. The board's jurisdiction has never been clarified in this area, Fiery said.

The Anatomy Board has succeeded in its mission. In 1974, about 80 new cadavers were available for research each year. Now, between 1,200 and 1,500 come in per year.

Another 70,000 people in the state are registered as body donors when they die.

"If we get no (new) unclaimed bodies, medical programs would not be in jeopardy," Wade said.

The "pauper burial" line was trimmed from $500 in this year's Washington County budget to $475 for next year. The fund was cut to the same extent - 3 percent - as several other budget lines.

County Administrator Rodney Shoop couldn't pinpoint how the money is used.

Divelbiss was also puzzled. He noted that the county has three unused burial plots among the last eight it purchased.

It was also unknown this week when the last pauper was buried at Rose Hill Cemetery. Divelbiss guessed that it's been at least two years.

No matter who takes charge of a body - the state or the county - "the important thing to remember is that no one is ever denied a dignified burial," Fiery said.

"We don't know how many of us will leave this earth, how any of us are going to end up," Divelbiss said.

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