The hard truth about living in a city is that there will inevitably be people that pass away who have no friends or family to mourn them. These people are often referred to as paupers and their burials are the responsibility of the city in which they died. Different cities have different methods of taking care of their recently deceased and the city of Tampa is no different.
The Cemetery for All People, otherwise known as the 22nd St Cemetery is a well-known potter’s field in the Tampa area. A potter’s field is a place of burial for people of unknown origin or paupers who cannot afford to be buried. This potter’s field in particular has been a source of interest because of the research the University of South Florida has been doing concerning the land. They have been surveying the land to try and discover how many bodies are buried in the lot as well as attempting to identify the bodies .
Some years ago, the storage facility that was used to house all the documentation concerning the potter’s field was burned down in a fire, therefore, most of the records concerning the buried paupers was lost. The researchers did have some indication where the people were buried because of the plaques buried above the graves. Sadly, when potter’s fields become too full they begin to bury the bodies on top of one another. This means that to accurately estimate where the bodies are buried the researchers had to use ground penetrating radar technology.
While the research done surrounding the Cemetery for All People is fascinating, the history surrounding the treatment of paupers is equally interesting. Documentation from the 1920s has been found detailing the treatment of paupers. Over the course of the year different undertakers were given the responsibility of burying pauper and so, for example, undertaker A would bury paupers from January to March, then undertaker B would take over from March to May and so on. Furthermore, because it was the 1920s there was segregation and racism; therefore, there were specific undertakers assigned for white paupers and colored paupers. Undertakers both black and white were paid the same amount for the paupers they buried, which was about $6 per pauper . This was fairly progressive for the time, as both black and white workers were being paid the same amount for their services.
The undertakers that participated in this system were initially chosen by the city, although, they did have the right to refuse the extra work. In one document that was located in a box containing several cemetery correspondences in the City of Tampa Bay archives, an undertaker, who shall remain unnamed, wrote a letter to the city official in charge of the selection about the details surrounding the contract. In his letter he requested a payment of $50 per pauper, an inordinate amount of money considering the time and the pay that other undertakers were receiving.
Hopefully, the research that is being done by the USF team can be furthered by utilizing the documents found by the city archives surrounding the burial rites for the paupers. Perhaps by tracing where the various undertakers buried the paupers the researchers could locate the missing documentation and use it to identify the bodies as well.