Six or seven years ago, I had a brainstorm to create a video that would introduce CemeteryTravel readers to the cemetery where I grew up, the one that taught me to love graveyards. I quickly realized that I couldn’t film it by myself. Unfortunately, my kid wasn’t interested in serving as my camera person.
Another brainstorm later, I decided to ask my friend, collaborator, and former director Brian Thomas if he would shoot the video for me. When we were in college, I had the honor of appearing in some of Brian’s student films and I knew he has a gift with a camera. I asked him to shoot me gardening in front of my grandparents’ headstone and touching the Youell tree stump. He came up with all the other moving shots in this video.
We shot the footage in 2014 and there the project languished. Every so often I would open iMovie and take a stab at assembling the bits, but my lack of editing skill made the work highly frustrating and very depressing. The gulf between what I wanted and what I could manage was crushing.
It took another brainstorm to finally get the job done. Earlier this year, I approached my friend John Palisano, who had published the first edition of Wish You Were Here and created an amazing book trailer for me. I asked John if he would edit the raw footage together for me.
After John said yes, his son Leo got interested in the project and put together this lovely video. Leo edited the footage together, added some of my photos where pieces were missing — and then animated them, and put up with my niggling comments of shortening this piece or that. He chose the stone-grain typeface for the title cards. He added the blue jays from Brian’s original videos as intro and outro sound. He made the the video of my dreams at last.
I was literally incapable of making this video without their help. Thank you so much, Brian, John, and Leo!
Ralph Rossell owns the only funeral home in the little town where I grew up. He’s handled the funerals for my grandparents. I went with my mom to Rossell’s to pick out a casket for my great aunt. I’m sure my parents have an arrangement with him.
When my brother died suddenly at the age of 36, Rossell’s funeral home asked for a photo of him so the cosmetologist could make him look good for the viewing. Somewhere along the line, someone slicked his curly red hair down. My mom threw a fit, the funeral home went into gear, and somebody curled all his thinning hair into ringlets. I thought it looked awful, but then my brother was dead and nothing was going to make me feel better about that. My mom was satisfied. That was enough.
I read Ralph’s book half in dread that the story would come up amidst all his other reminiscences of growing up with and burying the people in my hometown. It didn’t, but I recognized other people I’ve known here. I marvel at the boldness of writing this book — telling these stories — but I will treasure it. It documents the town remarkably well.
I’m vastly disappointed that I wasn’t in high school when the Home Ec teacher was taking the kids to tour the funeral home. My life might have run on a different path. Oh, well.
If you didn’t grow up in small-town Michigan but are interested in what it’s like to run a family-owned funeral home, the book paints a clear picture. There’s some fairly gruesome stuff amongst the folksy memories. The book has no literary pretensions, like Thomas Lynch’s The Undertaking. Because of that, I enjoyed it more.
Just north of Michigan’s lower peninsula lies Mackinac Island, the #1 tourist destination in the state. When I was a kid, my folks took me and my brother up several times to explore the old fort—complete with costumed soldiers doing marching drills and cannons fired out over the water—and a museum dedicated to a doctor who had studied digestion through another man’s abdominal war wound. We loved it.
In 1898, the island banned motorized traffic, so the chief modes of transportation remain bicycles and horses. Horse-drawn taxis deliver tourists from the ferry docks to their hotels. Horse-drawn tour buses circle the island, lecturing about the island’s native history, the time it served as a hub in the fur trade, and the two battles fought on its soil during the War of 1812. Since those exciting days, Mackinac Island has become a quiet, relaxing retreat, where life moves at a slower pace.
I hadn’t been up to the island in twenty years when my mom suggested a trip. My parents and I reached the Mackinac (pronounced mack-in-naw) Island Visitors Center ten minutes before it closed for the afternoon. Mom asked if they offered the night tour of the village, led by a schoolteacher, which she’d taken on a previous visit. The answer was no. Not missing a beat, Mom asked, “Is there a tour of the graveyard?”
I couldn’t have been prouder of her for thinking to ask. Lucky me: there was a one-time cemetery tour. Tickets were ten dollars. I would have happily paid for Mom and Dad to join me, but they didn’t seem inclined. It was hard to decide to go alone, since the tour didn’t start until dusk and I wasn’t all that familiar with the island, but I really wanted to take a night tour—my first—of a cemetery. I bought an advance ticket, so that the tour wouldn’t be called off for lack of interest.
As the afternoon wore on, I grew progressively more anxious. I don’t like to explore unfamiliar places alone. Fifteen years earlier, I was attacked by a man my university had on suicide watch. He grabbed me in a busy hallway in my dorm as I walked with a girlfriend. Since then, my sense of safety requires the presence of other people. I have no illusion that just being with them would stop an attack—but maybe, like the last time, they could chase down my assailant. Still, my parents had no desire to climb to the top of the island to reach the cemeteries. If I went, I would have to go alone.
After dinner, I walked my parents back to the hotel to get Mom’s umbrella. They planned to stroll through the village and watch the sunset, but rain clouds threatened from the north. We said our goodbyes and I marched off like I wasn’t a coward.
My heart thudded in my chest as I climbed steep Bogan Lane. The street dead-ended at a wooden staircase that led upward for more stories than I could count. I wouldn’t have chosen such an isolated path, but I didn’t have time to find another way up the bluff to the cemetery. I paused at the foot of the stairway, trying to calm down. I would be safe, of course. This was an island. No one would dare molest me because they’d have no way to escape. The ferries stopped running at sunset.
Unless they owned a boat, I thought, realizing that it would look suspicious to sail away after dark.
It crossed my mind that I could just eat the ticket price, go into “town,” and have a drink somewhere until I could slink back to the hotel. Mom and Dad need never know that I was afraid to wander the island alone. All the same, I really, really wanted to attend the graveyard tour.
I would be safe, I promised myself, then started upward. Trees shadowing the stairs made them feel enclosed. Even though I didn’t pass a soul as I climbed, I couldn’t allow myself to pause and rest. When I reached the top of the staircase, my knees quivered.
A handful of mansions lined a paved street that stretched off to my right. I’d expected to find a bench at the summit, where I might catch my breath and load film into my camera. There wasn’t anywhere to sit. I guess the locals didn’t want tourists loitering in front of their houses. An old-fashioned street lamp stood there, so I knew I’d have at least one light on the walk back. I checked my backpack to be sure I’d brought my mini flashlight.
The path turned left, into the forest. I felt like I should leave a trail of breadcrumbs, so I could find my way back after dark. The lonely road dwindled to what seemed like a bike path between the trees. My nerves twanged again. I wished my sixty-year-old parents had come along, although my dad could never have made the climb.
I’d left the island map with Dad, but remembered that I wanted Garrison Road. When I reached the path that ran behind the fort, I found a sign pointing to the cemeteries half a mile away. Cemeteries, plural, I noted with excitement. I picked up my pace. I didn’t have any sense how long I take to walk half a mile. Usually distances aren’t so carefully measured for me. I hustled, since the ticket said the tour started at 7:30, instead of the 8 p.m. printed on the flyer I’d cajoled out of the clerk at the Visitors Center.
I reached Sainte Anne’s Cemetery first. Its stone gates opened on the left side of Garrison Road, where a sign forbade riding horses in the graveyard. It struck me as sad that tourists needed to be asked to behave.
I stopped in the shadows at the side of the road to load my Pentax K-1000. My watch said 7:15. I felt sticky in the August humidity, even in a T-shirt. My hands shook as I tried to thread the film. The light was fading, but I thought if I hurried, I might be able to take some pictures with the aperture dialed all the way open. Hopefully I could hold steady enough, once I calmed down.
Mosquitoes whined around my ears. I needed to get some bug lotion on fast. While I slicked myself up, a couple of costumed players wandered by, discussing whether they would have sex. The woman asked cheerily if I could share some “bug juice.”
After I gave her a handful of lotion, I ducked into the Catholic cemetery. Sainte Anne’s sprawled across an irregularly shaped piece of land, bounded by the curves of Garrison Road on the north. The oldest graves seemed to lie on the Garrison side. I didn’t see any angels, but lots of stones dated from the last half of the 19th century. I knew they must have been ordered and shipped from the “mainland,” so finding them was a nice surprise.
As the afternoon light failed, the colors looked very strange. Everything took on a yellowy pallor as the setting sun tinged the overcast. I attached my huge flash and tested it a couple of times, but it took forever to recharge. I hoped my battery would last. If only I’d come prepared for this, instead of rushing around. I wondered if I could settle down enough, once the tour began, to enjoy myself.
I watched people come into the Catholic Cemetery, then climb over its low fieldstone wall to get out, rather than backtrack to a gate. Probably these were same people who needed to be told not to ride their horses through the graveyard.
About 7:30 I crossed Garrison Road to the Post Cemetery. The burial ground lay in a slight depression, surrounded by a white picket fence. Even though summer hadn’t ended yet, a tree inside the graveyard blazed orange. Regulation military headstones stood at attention in straight lines, joined by a variety of other sorts of tombstones. I liked seeing a military cemetery with personality.
My camera crapped out. It was too dark to figure out if the battery had died or if I’d screwed up loading the film. One more reason to switch to a digital, I thought. Scowling, I put the heavy Pentax into my backpack. I’d have to come back in the daylight, if I wanted photographs.
I needn’t have worried about the tour being cancelled. People kept arriving on foot and by horse-drawn taxi until eventually sixty people clustered around. The organizers split us up. My group of fifteen went off with a good-looking college boy named Brian.
Rather than touring just the Post Cemetery, we saw all three graveyards. My group started in the Protestant Cemetery, the farthest one west and the most recently opened. Oaks, pines, and beeches separated the Protestants from the military graveyard. A low wall of openwork stone, pierced like lace, surrounded their graves.
Fragrant with cedar and pine, the Protestant Cemetery was one of the best smelling graveyards I’ve visited. I had to watch my step as acorns rolled under my feet.
The first grave we visited belonged to the man who’d made Mackinac Island a nationally recognized resort. An actor with a silver mustache and a long black coat played Eugene Sullivan, social director for the Grand Hotel, who reminisced about his boss, Jimmy “the Comet” Hayes. James R. Hayes had managed the Grand Hotel during the Victorian era. He decided that Michigan alone couldn’t support the hotel, so he courted the wealthy of Chicago. When he heard Theodore Roosevelt planned to tour the country, Hayes invited the President to be a guest of the hotel. Before Roosevelt could decline, Hayes wrote all the major Midwestern newspapers to announce the President’s visit. Roosevelt never came, but the press attention cemented the hotel’s reputation.
I knew from the flyer that there would be costumed characters on the tour, but I liked that they didn’t play the dead people at our feet. Instead, actors played friends and family reminiscing about the dead.
One of my favorite stories in the Protestant Cemetery regarded William Marshall, Mackinac Island’s longest serving soldier. During the Civil War, Marshall manned the fort alone, guarding three soldiers from Tennessee imprisoned there. When his term of service expired, he reenlisted himself.
Our tour group returned to the Post Cemetery, where interments may have begun in the mid-1820s. Records show that forty American soldiers died at the fort between 1796 and 1835, but only a dozen graves remained marked in 1835. Those who fell during the War of 1812 probably still lie under the Wawashkamo Golf Course, where the British buried them.
I halted beside by the lamb sleeping atop the monument for William A. and Frank M., sons of William and Matilda Marshall, aged “2 years, 4 months, 9 days” and “2 years, 3 months.” While it’s rare for wives to be allowed burial in military cemeteries, I don’t think I’d ever seen children buried amidst the soldiers. Their presence testified to the isolation of inhabitants of the island. Their epitaph made me sad: “Short pain, short grief, dear babes were they, now joys, eternal and divine.”
The last military funeral on the island celebrated Private Coon Walters in 1891. Four years later, the US Army abandoned Fort Mackinac, leaving behind the military burial ground. The cemetery fell into disrepair until the Mackinac Island State Park Commission began maintenance in 1905.
The final graveyard on our tour was Saint Ann’s, where I’d begun the evening. The cemetery had originally been called Bonny Brae, or goodly meadows. It contained older graves moved up from the first Catholic cemetery on Hoban and Market Streets, just north of the Village Inn restaurant, where I’d had dinner with my folks. That earlier cemetery, created in 1779, had filled to capacity before being disassembled.
Another ghost evoked by the tour was Matthew Geary, an Irish immigrant who became a government fish inspector and made his fortune. He was remembered by Jim Union, a cooper, who had a “wooden marker because he couldn’t afford a stone like Mr. Geary.” Coopers made barrels to crate up whitefish to ship to Chicago. Their necessary labor didn’t pay as well as the bribery fishing captains could offer the inspectors. Union’s grave, now unmarked, had been the first in Sainte Anne’s Cemetery in 1852.
When the graveyard tour ended, people drifted uncertainly off into the twilight. I’d hoped to meet some nice women with whom I could walk back to town, but the tour had been such a whirlwind that there hadn’t been time to speak to anyone else. The group simply hustled from actor to actor, heard the stories of the people whose graves we clustered around, and rushed on.
I still didn’t have a map of the island. I suspected that I could walk down past the fort and into the village below by following someone, but I wondered if I’d remember which street my hotel was on if I came at it from that direction. Better to go back the way I’d come.
I trailed a French Canadian couple down the road that wound past the back of Fort Mackinac. The fortifications glowed ghostly bluish white in the half-light. Oak branches strained toward the path, trying to close out the darkening sky.
When we reached the row of mansions at the crest of the hill, the French Canadians turned left, leaving me to face the staircase alone. Down is always preferable to up, but I stood at the landing, looking out over the village below. Old-fashioned streetlights twinkled in the darkness. The breeze carried me a breath of laughter. Somewhere, a dog barked. Other than that, the lack of automobiles on the island made for a kind of quiet that I’d forgotten existed.
I felt more peaceful now. I didn’t mind being completely alone in this strange place—and I felt entirely alone in the quiet darkness. I’d been calmed by exploring the graveyards. Nothing bad had ever happened to me in a cemetery, I realized. I’d always felt safe there.
A guttural engine revved up as the last ferry chugged out of the harbor. Once the boat left, we were trapped on the island for the night.
The wind blew colder, raising goosebumps over my humid skin.
Time to climb down.
This essay is excerpted from Wish You Were Here: Adventures in Cemetery Travel, now back in print in paperback — with the ebook soon to come!
I am starting up the Death’s Garden project again. If there is a cemetery that has touched your life, please get in touch. I would love to hear from you, particularly if there is one you visited on vacation — or if you got married in one. The submissions guidelines are here.
Saint Ann’s Cemetery
also called Sainte Anne’s Cemetery or the Catholic Cemetery
Garrison Road & Custer Street
Mackinac State Park
Mackinac Island, Michigan 49757 GPS: Lat: 45° 51′ 29″N, Lon: 84° 37′ 16″W Founded: early 1850s Size: 2 acres Number of interments: approximately 1000 Open: Daily from sunrise to sunset Information: Ste. Anne Catholic Church, PO Box 537, Mackinac Island, MI 49757
North of Michigan’s lower peninsula lies an island 8 miles in diameter. The local native tribes used it as a burial ground. Since it lies at the Straits of Mackinac between Lake Michigan and Lake Huron, the French based fur trading operations there. The British occupied Mackinac Island during the Revolutionary War and built a fort. After the War of 1812, the island came under American control, was minimally staffed during the Civil War, and eventually became a resort for the wealthy of Detroit and Chicago.
Motorized vehicles were banned on Mackinac Island in 1898, so to this day the chief modes of transportation are bicycles and horses. The island, with its restored fort, livery stables, and fudge shops, is the #1 tourist attraction in Michigan.
Originally, Mackinac Island had only a Catholic burial ground, set up by French fur traders in 1779. That graveyard lay down near Sainte Anne’s Church, close to the water. For nearly a century, Mackinac Island simply had no Protestant community. Not until the fishing industry began in earnest toward the end of the 1800s did Calvinist missionaries come to preach to the fishermen and convert the natives.
Eventually that original Catholic cemetery filled to capacity. As early as 1852, islanders buried their dead on military reserve land near the Post Cemetery behind the fort. This was one of the few areas on the rocky island where the topsoil was deep enough to dig graves.
By the 1880s, most bodies from the first Catholic cemetery had been moved to Saint Ann’s. Not all the graves were transferred, however. Several stray headstones have been discovered in the weeds in town over the years. One now resides in the village museum. The site of that original Catholic cemetery, on Hoban and Market Streets, is prime land in the village now.
This newer Saint Ann’s Cemetery sprawls across an irregularly shaped piece of land, bounded by the curves of Garrison Road on the north and Custer Street on the west. The oldest graves lie on the Garrison side. Lots of stones date from the last half of the 19th century. They were ordered and shipped from the “mainland,” as islanders call Michigan’s Lower Peninsula.
The oldest marked grave in Saint Ann’s Cemetery belongs to 8-year-old Mary Biddle, who died after falling through the ice in December 1833. Her parents, Edward and Agatha Biddle, paid for a stone carved by W. E. Peters in Detroit (he signed his work) to mark her grave, which had been moved from the earlier cemetery. Her father Edward, who served as the village president, was buried in the Post Cemetery across the road.
Mary’s epitaph sums up the brevity of many children’s lives at the time:
“As the sweet flower that scents the morn
but withers in the rising day,
Thus lovely was this infant’s dawn,
Thus swiftly fled its life away.”
Also buried in the cemetery is Lieutenant G. A. Graveraet, a 22-year-old who oversaw Confederate prisoners of war at Camp Douglas, the notoriously unsanitary camp near Chicago, before leading the 1st Michigan Sharpshooters Company K into battle at Spotsylvania. His tombstone says he died in Washington of wounds received before Petersburg. Sharing his monument is 1st Sgt. Henry G. Graveraet, 57, one of the “boys” in Company K, who died in the battle. Henry was G.A.’s father and died under his command.
In Summer 2011, a place in Saint Ann’s Cemetery was set aside for the burial of bones repatriated to the Sault Sainte Marie Chippewa by the Smithsonian Institution.
Later that year, when the foundation for a new hotel was being excavated at the site of the old cemetery in town, human remains were uncovered. Although no anthropological analysis seems to have been performed, the bones were considered Native American. Since the Chippewa believe that the body has two souls — one that travels to the land of the dead and one that remains with the body forever, soaking into the soil — they believe the soil surrounding the bones should be preserved with the same respect as a body.
Because of that, a dumptruck was brought to the island. It was filled with earth and a jumble of bones and unloaded in the Catholic cemetery, where a turtle mound has since been built. Nearby a totem pole was erected, along with a sign reading “Jiibay Gitigaan” in Ojibwa, which translates to “Spirit Garden.” The turtle mound has 13 sections, for the 13 moons of the year celebrated by the Ojibwa.
Red granite obelisk and Whiting’s white granite temple at Glenwood Cemetery, Flint
2500 W. Court Street
Flint, Michigan 48503
Telephone: (586) 677-5400 Founded: 1857 Size: 47 acres Number of interments: no public number available
Jacob Smith, the man credited with founding the Michigan city of Flint, is buried in lovely Glenwood Cemetery with his descendants. The first white settler at the Grand Traverse of the Flint River, Smith was such good friends with the local Native American chief that the men considered themselves brothers. The chief gave Smith the name Wah-be-seens or White Swan, which appears on the back of Smith’s gravestone. Smith had originally been buried behind his trading post near what is now Water Street in Flint. He died in 1825.
Founded in 1857, two years after Flint became a city, Glenwood is one of the few early cemeteries in Michigan laid out in the rural style popularized by Mount Auburn Cemetery in Massachusetts. Its winding roads are shaded by tall oaks, maples, and pines. In fact, the cemetery is an arboretum with nearly 1,000 trees. The 56 species are predominantly natives, but include a very rare Chinese Yellowhorn tree and a huge, gnarled catalpa tree that predates the cemetery itself. Each of the trees is identified and you can pick up a free map to them outside the cemetery office.
Over all, lovely Glenwood makes the most of hilly terrain above the south bank of the Flint River. Its 47 acres includes two heavily wooded ravines, which shelter deer and other wildlife. The day I visited, it was filled with birdsong and butterflies.
The original 41 acres of the cemetery were purchased in March 1857. In addition to Jacob Smith, buried there are families who built the agricultural, lumbering, industrial, and automotive businesses in the area.
At Glenwood are buried 38 Flint city mayors, two Michigan state governors (Josiah Begole and Henry H. Crapo), Flint’s only lieutenant governor, and other politicians and diplomats, including Fenton McCreery, who served in Chile, the Dominican Republic, and Honduras, before joining the Paris office of the American Commission during World War I.
The Mott mausoleum stands on an island at the crest of the cemetery.
Also buried here are the men who founded the automobile industry in Flint. J. Dallas Dort headed up the largest carriage manufacturer in the world, before investing in Buick, General Motors, and Chevrolet. In 1905, Dort persuaded Charles Stewart Mott to bring his Westen-Mott Company to Flint to build wheels and axels for Buick Motor Company. General Motors eventually bought the company and Mott served as a GM director for over 60 years, as well as acting as executive vice president and chief of staff. His philanthropic foundation continues to fund educational and environmental projects around the world, as well as offering support for the arts.
After serving in the Civil War, James Whiting came to Flint. Eventually, he oversaw Flint Wagon Works, which built 50,000 vehicles a year. He and his associates bought the Buick Motor Company in 1903 and moved it from Detroit to Flint. An auditorium thatWhiting funded in Flint’s Civic Center bears his name and continues to welcome traveling theater and music.
Arthur Giles Bishop worked his way up from teller to president of the Genesee County Savings Bank, before serving on the Board of Directors for General Motors and Chevrolet. He donated land for the city’s airport in 1928.
In addition to the local bigwigs, common people are also buried in Glenwood. Orphans from the Michigan School for the Deaf had been buried in an unmarked graves during an epidemic in the 1880s. A researcher located their grave in 2014 and it is now marked with an obelisk. Several soldiers and generals from the Revolutionary War were transferred here to lie with their families.
In 1901, seven more acres were added on the eastern side of Glenwood Cemetery. That space, with its own separate entrance, is dominated by a neoclassical mausoleum that opened in 1914.
The cemetery was added to the State Register of Historic Places in January 1988. A walking tour map is available at the office for free.
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