Monthly Archives: August 2013

Cemetery of the Week #105: White Chapel Memorial Park

Vintage postcard of the grounds at White Chapel Memorial Park

Vintage postcard of the grounds at White Chapel Memorial Park

White Chapel Memorial Park Cemetery
621 W. Long Lake Road
Troy, Michigan 48098
Telephone: (248) 362-7670
Founded: 1928
Size: 200 acres
Number of interments: more than 50,000
Open: Mondays through Saturdays in April through September from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. and from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. in October through March. Closings echo the seasonal hours on Sundays and holidays, but the cemetery doesn’t open until 10 a.m. those days. The Temple of Memories Mausoleum is open 1 p.m. to 4:20 p.m. every day, even Sundays and holidays.

White Chapel Memorial Park lies alongside I-75, the chief north/south highway through Lower Michigan. It was the original memorial park cemetery in Michigan, introducing the state to the simple brass plaques placed flush in the ground that were pioneered by Forest Lawn in Glendale, California. In fact, when White Chapel opened on June 11, 1928, it was the first memorial park east of California.

Vintage aerial view of the Temple of Memories at White Chapel Memorial Park

Vintage aerial view of the Temple of Memories at White Chapel Memorial Park

The guiding principle of the memorial park concept was that rural cemeteries like Mount Auburn and Green-Wood, with their mortuary sculpture and mournful epitaphs, were old-fashioned. The world was changing rapidly in the 1920s: “Present-day enlightenment cannot tolerate the association of depressing, gruesome, and distracting objects with the final resting place of loved ones,” says their sales brochure published in 1928. “Here every environment speaks not of death, but of happy memories and the peace of life everlasting.”

Another of the innovations White Chapel brought to Michigan was a four-manual pipe organ, which was “capable of reproducing the tones of practically every known musical instrument.” It was specially designed by the Aeolian Company of New York City, with the intention of providing soft music “audible throughout the entire Park,” according to the vintage brochure.

Among the monuments adorning the very flat grounds at White Chapel is a larger-than-life-sized polar bear guarding an army helmet and cross. He commemorates Michigan soldiers who fought the Russians in World War I. According to the Roadside America listing for the monument, the men of the 339th Infantry (dubbed the Polar Bears) were the only Americans to actually fight the Russians in “real combat.” More than 200 men, many of them from the Detroit area, died in battle or from the harsh winter conditions in Russia. In 1929, surviving Polar Bears returned to Russia to recover the bodies of their comrades. 56 of them were reburied here in May 1930.

Interior of the chapel at White Chapel Memorial Park. Vintage postcard.

Interior of the chapel at White Chapel Memorial Park. Vintage postcard.

Among the historically important or infamous names buried at White Chapel are Dr. Jack Kevorkian, who assisted 130 suicides until he was imprisoned (His epitaph reads, “He sacrificed himself for everyone’s rights.”); John DeLorean, whose marker bears the image of his iconic car; Mauri Rose, a three-time winner of the Indianapolis 500; Sgt. Robert R. Shumard, the assistant engineer on the Enola Gay, which dropped the bomb on Hiroshima in 1945; and the last survivor of the John Dillinger gang, Russell Lee Clark.

Regarding White Chapel Memorial Park’s unusual name: the cemetery has no connection to the poor neighborhood in London where Jack the Ripper tore apart his victims. Instead, Michigan’s White Chapel is dominated by the enormous Temple of Memories Mausoleum. Said to be inspired by early Greek architecture (although the angels and other ornamentation seemed more Art Deco to me), the structure was built of “imperishable concrete and steel” faced with marble, granite, and bronze. It really stands out on the runway-flat lawn surrounding it.

In addition, the vintage brochure speaks of the “exclusive” nature of the White Chapel Memorial Park while pointing out the reasonable prices of its graves. The Last Great Necessity reports that Forest Lawn, first of the memorial parks, defended in court its right to cancel the sale of a grave plot to an African American lot holder who did not reveal his race at the time of the purchase. The book goes on to point out that White Chapel was one of the first cemeteries “to be so designated in any town or city that itself did not include ‘White’ in its name.” Segregation of memorial parks, the book continues, “was a nationwide trend.”

This trend continued in White Chapel into the 1960s, when an honorably discharged World War I veteran was removed from his newly dug grave and evicted from the cemetery. George Vincent Nash was a full-blooded Winnebago (also called Ho-Chunk), but the cemetery president said that 40,000 plot owners “had paid for the restriction” of the “type” of people who could be buried at White Chapel. It didn’t matter that Nash’s wife, part Chippewa, had been buried in the cemetery without incident since 1949.

According to Richard Bak, author of Boneyards: Detroit Under Ground, Senator Basil W. Brown of Detroit sponsored legislation that prohibited discrimination by race or color in private cemeteries. The bill passed into law in 1961 and was upheld by a State Supreme Court decision in 1966. “Although largely overlooked today,” Bak reports, “gaining equality inside Michigan’s graveyards was considered a significant early victory in the Civil Rights movement.”

Some Useful links:

The White Chapel Memorial Park home page

More information about the Polar Bear monument

Some lovely photos of White Chapel

The Grave-Cast tour of White Chapel

More information on the final resting place of George Vincent Nash

GPS information from

Weekly Photo Challenge: Focus

View of Drummond Hill Cemetery, Niagara Falls

View of Drummond Hill Cemetery, Niagara Falls

I’ve already written about Drummond Hill Cemetery, but the photo challenge for the week is Focus, so I knew the sort of photo I wanted to post.

I visited Drummond Hill late in a busy day.  We’d gotten up early to explore the tunnels behind Niagara Falls, then took a ride on the Maid of the Mist below the falls, then walked along the rapids farther out along the river.  My parents planned to take my daughter back to the hotel to swim in the pool, but as we passed the cemetery on our way, my dad wheeled down a side street and dropped me off at the back gate.

Mourner leaning on a funeral urn

Mourner leaning on a funeral urn

I had the graveyard mostly to myself.  I admired the Victorian stones, many of which have been laid flat in the grass.  The iconography spanned from weeping willows and mourners at the graveside to Jane Eliza’s sarcophagus (above).  The stones hadn’t fared well in the damp, cold Canadian winters, but the man who’d labored over them had been an artist.  I wondered if anyone now knows who he was.

It was tricky to photograph the cemetery with the late afternoon sunlight behind the headstones.  I took several photos that I think of as “views,” pulling back from individual stones to see the graveyard as context, as scenery. The photo at the top was taken in the shadow of the old tree that may predate the pioneer graves beneath it.

I like that photo because it shows the range of stones in the graveyard, from the red granite column on the extreme left side through the bright white marble to the weathered gray granite with the bolster on top.  I like the sense of the age of the cemetery, with its ranks and ranks of monuments.  I even like the mist that fills the air and reminds me that the falls are not really very far away.

Cemetery of the Week #104: The Magicians’ Cemetery

Monument to Harry Blackstone, Harry Blackstone Jr., and Harry Blackstone III

Monument to Harry Blackstone, Harry Blackstone Jr., and Harry Blackstone III

Lakeside Cemetery
a.k.a. the Magicians’ Cemetery, Colon Cemetery
Section 10, Farrand Road/County Road 145
Colon, Michigan
Telephone: 269-432-3371 (the cemetery sexton)
Founded: mid-1800s
Number of interments: More than 2300, according to Findagrave

Deep in the heart of southwest Michigan’s Amish country, Colon is “the world capital of magical illusion,” according to Weird Michigan: Your Travel Guide to Michigan’s Local Legends and Best Kept Secrets. Among its attractions is the so-called Magicians’ Cemetery, where many of the 20th-century’s stage magicians chose to leave their final marks.

Grave of Don Alan McWethy, "one of the 100 most influential magicians of the 20th century," according to Magic Magazine.

Grave of Don Alan McWethy, “one of the 100 most influential magicians of the 20th century,” according to Magic Magazine.

Colon is a small town of about 1200 people, significantly fewer than reside in the cemetery. Every August, the town hosts Abbott’s Magic Get-Together, “a four-day convention featuring seminars, demonstrations, and public performances by some of the world’s leading illusionists,” as well as a tour of the cemetery. This year’s Get-Together was August 7-10.

Colon became a magical town in 1925, when Harry Blackstone, who would become the most popular stage magician of the mid-twentieth century (with both a network radio show and a comic book) bought property in the area. He and his troupe spent summers in Colon, working out their new shows before going out on the vaudeville circuit. Each year, Blackstone debuted his new show at Hill’s Opera House for the locals before taking it on the road.

The grave of Bill Baird, the Magnificent Fraud

The grave of Bill Baird, the Magnificent Fraud

One of Blackstone’s summer visitors was Percy Abbott, an Australian magician who built tricks. After settling in Colon, Abbott founded Abbot’s Magic Manufacturing Company, the world’s largest producer and mail-order purveyor of magic paraphernalia.  In 1934, he sponsored the first of the yearly Magic Get-Togethers.

According to, records for the rural graveyard did not begin to be kept until 1900. The only record of burials previous to that are the stones that mark those graves. That makes me uncertain how many people are buried in Lakeside.

Lund founded of the American Museum of Magic in Marshall, Michigan, which has the largest collection of magic artifacts on display in the US.

Lund founded of the American Museum of Magic in Marshall, Michigan, which has the largest collection of magic artifacts on display in the US.

Among them are three generations of Harry Blackstones, playing card manipulator Don Alan, billiard ball master Bill Baird, pickpocket Ricki Dunn, founder of the American Museum of Magic Robert Lund, magical family the Amazing Conklins, Jack Gwynne who could make all kinds of amazing things appear out of mid-air, and more.

I’ve had a huge amount of fun researching this cemetery of the week.  I hope you’ll enjoy some videos of the performers buried here, but not forgotten.

Blackstone the Magician’s Sugar Crisp commercial:

 Don Alan’s card tricks:

Useful links:

The American Museum of Magic’s page on Lakeside Cemetery

A history of the town of Colon

Historical markers in Colon

Geocache information and detailed biographies of the Blackstones.

GPS information from

Weekly Photo Challenge: Carefree

The grave of Ricky Dunn in Colon, Michigan. Photo by Loren Rhoads.

Earlier this month, I and a friend went off on a writing retreat for a weekend.  It was glorious.  We stayed in a “hermitage” in the woods, facing a meadow full of butterflies.  I got an immense amount of work done and she got inspired on some projects she’d put aside.  Both of us felt recharged.

Martha and I have been friends for a long time.  In high school, we wrote a novel together — and somehow our friendship survived the process.  We’ve published each other’s work over the years.  We’ve collaborated on short stories.  She’s my first reader.  I adore her imagination and am awe of the way she captures characters.

One of the best things about our friendship is that she lets me drag her off on my cemetery excursions.  Reasonably near our retreat was the Lakeside Cemetery of Colon, Michigan.  Deep in the heart of Michigan’s Amish country, Colon is “the world capital of magical illusion,” according to Weird Michigan: Your Travel Guide to Michigan’s Local Legends and Best Kept Secrets.

The cemetery has a collection of stage magicians buried in it.  The best known are the Blackstones (senior, junior, and the third), but I liked the grave of Ricki Dunn, whose epitaph proclaims, “Ricki Dunn was a thief.”

I haven’t found any video of him performing yet, but here’s a slideshow of photos of him:

He wrote the book on pickpocketing: The Professional Stage Pickpocket.

Here’s one of his tricks, performed by one of his friends:

I’ll write more about the cemetery tomorrow, but I can’t wait to investigate the other characters buried there.

Cemetery of the Week #103: Drummond Hill Cemetery

The battle monument at the top of Drummond Hill Cemetery

The battle monument at the top of Drummond Hill Cemetery

Drummond Hill Cemetery
6110 Lundy’s Lane
Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada
Telephone: Niagara Falls City Hall (905) 356-7521
Founded: 1799
Size: 4 acres
Number of interments: More than 3000

In the final years of the 18th century, a pioneer graveyard stood atop the hill on Lundy’s Lane, beside the First Presbyterian Church. Buried in the churchyard were British settlers who were farming the fertile land near one of the wonders of the natural world: Niagara Falls.

Grave of John Burch

Grave of John Burch

The EVP Society of Ontario says this cemetery contains some of the oldest gravestones in the area. The oldest surviving headstone in the graveyard dates to 1797. It remembers John Burch, who was initially buried on his own farm, but was reburied here in 1799. He was one of the earliest Loyalist pioneers in the area. In 1786, he had been one of the first to harness the Niagara River for commercial purposes, erecting saw and grist mills on the Upper Niagara Rapids.

To this day, the Niagara River and its waterfalls form a natural boundary between the United States and Canada. This became too close for comfort during the War of 1812.

My American education led me to believe that the Americans of the day were just calmly minding their own business when British soldiers attacked Washington, burned the Library of Congress, and generally were meanies in red coats. I didn’t know that American troops had invaded Canada in an attempt to annex Ontario.

The battle monument above the grave of 22 unknown British soldiers.

The battle monument above the grave of 22 unknown British soldiers.

The bloodiest battle of the war, which Canadians consider their Gettysburg, took place on July 25, 1814 in the churchyard of the First Presbyterian Church on Lundy’s Lane. American forces repeatedly attacked Lieutenant General Gordon Drummond’s men, who held the hilltop after six hours of fighting. Both sides suffered casualties estimated at 800 men each. In the end, claiming victory, the Americans withdrew to nearby Fort Erie, which they abandoned in November that year. The American invasion of Canada was over, but if the battle had gone differently, Ontario would now be an American state.

Drummond’s men were left on the hill with the task of burying the 1600 dead men in trenches in the old cemetery. Twenty-two British soldiers lie beneath the monument to the Battle of Drummond Hill, which stands at the crest of the hill. The monument includes an obelisk, a pair of cannons, cannonballs, and a British flag.

Other soldiers, mostly unknown, remain buried around the cemetery. SpiritSeekers reports that the soldiers’ average age was 15. Some of the men are believed to continue to haunt the cemetery, especially at night.

Laura Secord's monument was unveiled in 1901.

Laura Secord’s monument was unveiled in 1901.

Also buried in the cemetery is Canadian national hero Laura Secord. When American officers commandeered her home, she overheard them plotting an attack on the British outpost at DeCew’s Falls. She walked nearly 20 miles alone through woods and swamps to warn the British. Lieutenant FitzGibbons gathered the 50 men under his command, 15 militiamen, and a small force of Six Nation and other Indians, and attacked the Americans at Beaver Dams. The small British contingent caught the Americans by surprise and forced their surrender after capturing their commander and cannons.

A monument erected by the Ontario Historical Society now marks Secord’s grave.

Also buried in the graveyard is Karel Soucek, a daredevil who went over Niagara Falls in a barrel in 1984. His monument is topped with a cylinder and is decorated with a portrait of him, surrounded by a stylized cascade of falling water. It quotes him as saying, “It is better for a person to take a chance at life…than to live in that gray twilight and know not victory nor defeat.”

Daredevil Karel Soucek's gravestone

Daredevil Karel Soucek’s gravestone

The Niagara Parks Commission assumed jurisdiction of the cemetery in 1910, later transferring it to the City in 1996. The Niagara Falls Museums have offered tours of the graveyard the last several Octobers, but the new schedule doesn’t appear online yet. One can assume that there will also be events to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the battle next July, but that information hasn’t been posted yet either. Keep checking here:

In the meantime, the Drummond Hill Cemetery provides a pleasant distraction from the estimated 13 million people who visit Niagara Falls each year. In addition to a variety of monuments to the battle, the cemetery contains several interesting pioneer graves, marked with bronze plaques, and a nice selection of marble gravestones with Victorian mourning reliefs. Even the more modern granite grave markers have lovely decorations. The cemetery is alive with black squirrels and birds. Even though you can still see the Skylon Tower overlooking the falls, the graveyard feels like it’s a world away.

I’d like to thank Mickie and Chad, our servers at the Elements on the Falls restaurant who encouraged me to visit the cemetery. I’d also like to thank my parents and daughter, who spared me for a couple of hours so I could poke around the cemetery while they enjoyed the hotel pool. Any vacation wouldn’t be complete without a cemetery visit.

Useful links:

The City of Niagara Falls homepage for the cemetery and battlefield

PDF walking tour of the Battle of Lundy’s Lane

Battlefields of the War of 1812 tour

Stories of some of the pioneers buried in Drummond Hill Cemetery

Niagara’s Most Haunted

In Search of Ghosts in Drummond Hill Cemetery:

SpiritSeekers re-enacts the hauntings