A potter's field, paupers' grave or common grave is a term for a place for the burial of unknown or indigent people. The US expression potter's field derives from the Bible, referring to a field used for the extraction of potter's clay; such land, useless for agriculture, could be used as a burial site.
Then Judas, who betrayed him, seeing that he was condemned, repenting himself, brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and ancients, saying: "I have sinned in betraying innocent blood." But they said: "What is that to us? Look thou to it." And casting down the pieces of silver in the temple, he departed, and went and hanged himself with a halter. But the chief priests, having taken the pieces of silver, said: "It is not lawful to put them into the corbona, because it is the price of blood." And after they had consulted together, they bought with them the potter's field, to be a burying place for strangers. For this the field was called Haceldama, that is, the field of blood, even to this day.
The site referred to in these verses is traditionally known as Akeldama, in the valley of Hinnom, which was a source of potters' clay. Obviously, such a strip-mining site would not then be good for agriculture and might as well become a graveyard for those who could not be buried in an orthodox cemetery. This may be the origin of the name.
Matthew was drawing on earlier Biblical references to potters' fields. The passage continues, with verses 9 and 10:-
Then what the prophet Jeremiah had said came true: "They took the thirty silver coins, the amount the people of Israel had agreed to pay for him, and used the money to buy the potter's field, as the Lord had commanded me."
This is a free quotation from Zechariah 11:12-13. However, Matthew gives the quote to Jeremiah thereby creating confusion. There are two possible reasons for the reference to Jeremiah. Jeremiah also speaks of buying a field in Jeremiah 32:6-15 but that is a symbol of hope, not despair as mentioned here, and the price is 17 pieces of silver; and Matthew could have combined the words of the two prophets while only citing the "major" prophet. Secondly, "Jeremiah" was sometimes used to refer to the Books of the Prophets in toto as "The Law" is sometimes used to refer to Moses' five books – Genesis through Deuteronomy, the Pentateuch.
Craig Blomberg suggests that the use of the blood money to buy a burial ground for foreigners in Matthew 27:7 may hint at the idea that "Jesus' death makes salvation possible for all the peoples of the world, including the Gentiles." Other scholars do not read the verse as referring to Gentiles, but rather to Jews who are not native to Jerusalem.
Lincoln Park, on Chicago's North Side, found its origin in the 1840s as Chicago City Cemetery. The southernmost portion of the cemetery, where one may now find a number of baseball fields (north of LaSalle Dr., west of North Avenue Beach), was the location of the City Cemetery potter's field from 1843 to 1871. More than 15,000 people, including 4,000 Confederate soldiers, were buried here on marshy land near the water's edge. The baseball fields have occupied these grounds since 1877.
Potter's Field was also the name of a small cove of the East River just below the Williamsburg Bridge on the Brooklyn side, where bodies that have been in the river from November through the winter season surface in April as the rising temperature causes them to decompose and rise to the surface. The fluid dynamics of the East River causes a collection of these bodies every year off the docks of Potter's Field.
Toronto, Ontario had a Potter's Field at the corner of Yonge and Bloor Streets. The burial grounds were closed with some of the bodies moved to other cemeteries. Unknown number of bodies remained on the site when it was built over. Today the grounds are part of the posh Yorkville district, and the site of an office tower.
Mr. Potter, the greedy banker in the Frank Capra film It's a Wonderful Life, is told by his land agent that his slum-like housing will soon be a "potter's field" due to the Baileys' efforts to build affordable housing.
Potter's Field is the title of an 3 issue limited comic book series (plus a one shot) written by Mark Waid and published by Boom! Studios about an anonymous investigator who takes it upon himself to discover the identities of those buried on Hart Island.
In the long-running MUD GemStone IV, an area called the "Potter's Field" is the primary spawn area for zombies. The area's descriptions are, indeed, of a long-disused graveyard for the indigent and unknown.
The Venture Compound in The Venture Brothers has a potter's field containing dead henchman. The boys remembered their father telling them to avoid a spooky house on the edge of their property, "Mr. Potter's house". However the actual inhabitant, a reclusive scientist named Ben, told Dean Venture that no one named "Mr. Potter" had ever lived there, and theorized that Dean's father had actually called it "potter's field", because he and his father used the field in front of the house to bury the massive number of supervillains and henchmen who died on the compound over the decades.
The term was used by Saul Berenson in the Series Homeland Episode 7 to describe where Raqim Faisel would be buried.
Potter's Field is a novel by Frank Roderus which won the Spur Award for Best Paperback Original in 1996.