I drove to Elmwood Cemetery fine by myself, even though the guidebook described it as lying in the shadow of the Renaissance Center in downtown Detroit. As I wandered around the lovely old graveyard, I noticed that people seemed nervous whenever I drifted too near them. They would look at me, then quickly return to their vehicles and drive away. It was hard to believe that I was spooking them, but it happened enough times that I couldn’t imagine any other explanation.
When I described the occurrence to my friend Martha, she scolded me for going to Detroit alone. We were both small-town girls, growing up, but she lived in urban Flint then. She made me promise I wouldn’t drive to Detroit alone again. She even volunteered to come with me.
Her concern made me think of one of the poems she read me in high school: “James James said to his Mother, “Mother,” he said, said he, “You must never go down to the end of the town, if you don’t go down with me.”
So I asked her to come along the day I drove down to Woodmere Cemetery, which lies closer to Dearborn, a suburb, than to the heart of Detroit. Woodmere isn’t anywhere near downtown, but it’s just a couple of miles north of the notorious River Rouge factory. In 1969, while Ford built Mustangs at the plant, the river was so horribly polluted that IT CAUGHT FIRE.
Martha and I drove past the plant on our way to the graveyard. It was model changeover time, so that huge campus, even though it contains six Ford factories and smelts steel now, looked like a ghost town.
We saw evidence of the factory’s presence on the gravestones, though. The cemetery must lie upwind. Black grit stained the stones, picking out the lettering and marring the angels’ faces.
Martha and I poked around for a long while. I wanted to find the grave of David Buick, who started the company where my dad worked for more than 30 years. Buick’s company helped my dad buy the farm where I grew up. It put food on our table and paid my way through university. Without this man, and the stability General Motors provided my family, my life would have been completely different. I might have been working in a factory myself.
As Martha and I wandered through the graveyard, we heard an ice cream truck roaming the neighborhood streets beyond the cemetery fence. I hummed the song it played, trying to place it. When the ice cream truck reached the chorus, I sang along: “Look for the union label.”
It was the anthem of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, about buying American-made products. I’m sure no 21st-century children recognize the melody, although I remembered it from television commercials in my own childhood. Martha’s father had been a union man, but my dad had been white collar. Both of them lamented what had happened to Michigan when most of the auto companies moved their manufacturing jobs out of state.
Cemeteries of Detroit on Cemetery Travel:
Cemetery of the Week #12: Elmwood Cemetery
Cemetery of the Week #73: Woodmere Cemetery
Cemetery of the Week #74: Woodlawn Cemetery
Another of my Detroit cemetery adventures with Martha.