This beautiful collection combines historic photographs with modern black-and-white photos of cemeteries in Detroit and the surrounding cities, ranging as far abroad as Royal Oak and Ypsilanti. The new photos were shot by a number of different people, but author Richard Bak ties them all together. He provides a page of explanation and description for each photo, which makes for a quick read full of fascinating tidbits of information.
The book opens with an essay that spans Michigan history from the Copper People and the Mound Builders in the years BC up through the French and the American settlers who moved into the Michigan Territory. It discusses the old pioneer graveyards that made way for factories and freeways, then talks about the lovely garden cemeteries that date back to the middle of the 1800s: Elmwood, Woodlawn, and Woodmere, as well as the Catholic burial ground called Mt. Elliott.
Historic photos run a gamut from kids sledding at Elmwood to medical students — including a couple of women — posing with a cadaver at the Michigan College of Medicine. The modern photos dwell on the faces of angels or a gravestone photograph of two kids with a huge old car. I can’t really do justice to the variety without making a really long list.
If you enjoy history, graveyards, or lightly morbid local stories, this is the book for you. You can order your own copy through Amazon: Boneyards: Detroit Under Ground.
View of Woodmere Cemetery with Brevet General Vreeland’s grave
9400 W Fort Street
Detroit, Michigan 48209
Telephone: (313) 841-0188 Founded: 1867 Size: 250 acres Number of interments: more than 40,000 Open: Monday to Friday 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Saturday 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. On Sundays, only by appointment.
Only two years after the Civil War ended, Woodmere Cemetery was founded by a group of prominent Detroit businessmen that included John J. Bagley (buried here), who would shortly be elected Governor of Michigan. These men felt that Detroit needed a rural cemetery, far enough away from the center of town that it would not be in danger of being exhumed and moved in the future. Of course, the city has grown out to engulf it now.
The 250-acre tract they chose had its own picturesque creeks, which had the lamentable habit of running red in the spring due to iron in the soil. According to Gail Hershenzon’s eponymous book about the cemetery, Woodmere was so heavily wooded in the beginning that the “cemetery office’s fireplace always had firewood.” Apparently, coffins were made out of other trees on the property. Some of the lovely old trees remain, but most are gone now.
Gravestone blackened by soot from the Rouge River factory three miles away.
Woodmere’s first burial was Anna Maria Schwartz in November 1868. The cemetery also received some 4000 bodies from the old City Cemetery including, Hershenzon says, a woman believed to have been buried alive during the city’s cholera epidemic in 1833.
In 1896, Woodmere set aside 10,000 feet for a military section. 156 bodies were moved from the Fort Wayne graveyard. The fort, which had been built in 1840, had the capability of firing on Canada across the river. Of course, that was never necessary.
Several titans of the auto industry lie beneath a modest gravestones at Woodmere. Among them is Henry Leland, a machinist who formed the Lincoln Motor Company and created the Cadillac. David Buick started his company because he’d developed an enameling process. Although he gave his name to the line of cars, he was forced out of his namesake company.
Formerly in a modest grave was Hamilton Carhartt, who developed the overalls that bear his name. His granddaughter had a classical mausoleum flanked by angels built and his body was moved in 2000.
Woodmere is the final haven for Private Eddie Slovik. Originally classified as 4F (exempt from service because of his conviction for theft) during World War II, Slovik’s classification was changed and he was forced into combat. He deserted twice in France. After he was caught, he was court-martialed and sentenced to die before a firing squad in January 1945. He was the only man to be executed for desertion since the Civil War. His wife fought to have him pardoned and his body returned to Michigan, but Slovik remained in a numbered grave until after her death. In 1987, Ronald Reagan signed an order allowing Slovik’s repatriation, but he has never been pardoned.
Brevet General Michael Vreeland is also buried in Woodmere. He fought at Bull Run, Antietam, and Fredericksburg, but was “gravely wounded” at Gettysburg in 1863. All the same, he survived until 1876. His body wasn’t moved to Woodmere until 1911.
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.
Woodmere Cemetery isn’t blessed with lots of widely known permanent residents, but Gail Hershenzon’s book does a wonderful job of bringing the place to life. She’s specially skillful at summing up interesting residents in a paragraph, pointing out a number of fascinating monuments, and spinning some gruesome stories.
My favorite is about Amelia Buck, buried in an unmarked grave. Her sister kept Amelia’s body, convinced she could pray her back to life. She tried to feed her dead sister a little coffee each day and even propped her up in a chair on the porch to watch the Fourth of July parade.
The reason this book doesn’t get five stars is that Amelia Buck is said to have died July 27 — several weeks after the Fourth of July. Probably the first date is a typo and should have said June 27, but it does call into question other facts and figures in the book.
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