• Detroit History Tour: Woodlawn Cemetery

    by  • March 18, 2010 • Best of THE NIGHT TRAIN, History • 13 Comments

    memoria in eterna

    In the location of the large cemeteries such as Elmwood, Mt. Elliott, and the German Lutheran, considerable enterprise was displayed in choosing places remote from the city, but the wonderful increase in population and in size has made these places practically usless for the future. There is something sacred about the resting place of the dead and we are unwilling to disturb it … The time will probably come when all burials within the limits of the city will be forbidden.

    Clarence M. Burton, The City of Detroit, Michigan, 1701 – 1922, 1922

    Woodlawn Cemetery, on Woodward between 7 and 8 mile, opened in 1896. Since then, according to cemetery estimates, more than 71,000 have been interred there. When Mr. Burton wrote his history of the City, Woodlawn was relatively new, and interred, he estimated, about 6,000.

    Old cemeteries are a strange joy. Even with the chill of death in the air (and the weird-out knowledge that woah! There are bodies ALL AROUND YOU), a well-planned, well-preserved 19th-century burial ground, with rustling shade trees, gentle hills and eye-popping marble monuments squeezed together in a concordance of grace and/or audacity — well, it’s a thing to behold.

    woodlawn cemetery

    Elmwood is about 50 years older than Woodlawn, and yard for yard, there are many, many more weeping angels, ornamental obelisks and showy statuary there. The tombstones are plainer at Woodlawn, but the real cry of defiance in the face of mortality are its dozens of private mausoleums, which give the place the character of a small, silent city.

    hudson fw

    Here’s the eternal home of J.L. Hudson, department store magnate, guarded by a pair of vicious Canadian geese, which tried more than once to chase me off.

    couzens fw

    At the top of one of Woodlawn’s highest hills, up twenty-five or so shallow stairs, the tiny Parthenon of James J. Couzens, Mayor of Detroit 1919-1922 and US Senator 1922-1936.

    Couzens was an adamant philanthropist who, when his wife requested “a box to in which to keep my pearls,” presented a million dollars to the Children’s Hospital of Detroit. And in this eloquent essay, he advocates — with uncommon progressive zest — higher wages, treating your employees like human beings, and caring for even the least promising of your lot as an employer:

    Ninety-seven percent of the ex-convicts employed by the Ford company have made good, though 45 percent of them have required a good deal of attention and patience. Such a corporation will even find some way of caring for its share of the world’s incompetents, for Society must care for them anyhow, and must add to the corporation’s tax roll if provision is not made for them on the pay roll.

    hecker

    The tomb of Colonel Frank Hecker, whose turreted chateau still stands at Woodward and E. Ferry.

    dodge brothers fw

    And the Dodge Brothers, with their unbelievable temple to (tacky?) Egyptian revival architecture, footed by two buff sphinxes.

    Behind the Dodge family monuments is a burbling lake, ringed by gorgeous European-style garden memorials and staffed by a dozen or more of those nasty fighting geese. An elegantly crumbling stone bridge (flanked on either side by less elegant “Don’t feed the geese” signs) takes you across the water.

    woodlawn bridge

    garden monument fw

    I always feel anxious in cemeteries at first, as if there is some way I should behave, a particular method of walking between narrowly plotted headstones (I think someone told me once to walk behind them, not in front of them, to avoid stepping on what would be a person’s face, but maybe I just imagined that). In Wisconsin, I used to jog through the local cemetery, but always a little ashamedly, always preparing a defense should someone pull me aside and tell me it was rude. Even being there as a tourist seems crass somehow, especially in a place like Woodlawn that buries people every day, places where families still gather to mourn.

    The lines between public park and private emotional space are blurry at cemeteries, but after an hour or so on foot at Woodlawn I felt comfortable in — and comforted by — its serenity, and its hugeness, and its neo-Classical hubris.

    And I love, please excuse the pun, how grounding they are. Those people you read about in history class, with streets and buildings named after them, weren’t phantoms spewing out old letters and pioneering big ideas from on high. They took up space! And wherever their souls are, if there is such a thing as a soul, their bodies are still right here with us, whether that is a reassuring fact or not.

    hazen pingree fw

    Here’s Hazen Pingree, in a relatively modest private mausoleum. Most of these have stained glass in the back walls, and when the sun shines through them, an eerie tinted glow emanates from their shackled doors.

    stained glass inside fw

    Besides long-dead city fathers and industry magnates, Woodlawn is also the last home of Rosa Parks, who is interred in the chapel mausoleum, as well as some Motown stars (Levi Stubbs and Lawrence Payton of the Four Tops; The Funk Brothers’ James Jamerson). Stevie Wonder and Diana Ross both have Woodlawn plots reserved. It’s like a secret society of city elders, and it’s not hard to imagine the whole place as a circle of friends.

    There are tons more pictures on The Night Train’s Facebook page, including several of mausoleum doors, which I could not get enough of.

    13 Responses to Detroit History Tour: Woodlawn Cemetery

    1. March 19, 2010 at 12:05 pm

      I’m just glad it’s spring in these pictures. If I had to watch you traipse through yet another snowy cemetery trying to catch your death, I was going to collect spare change to buy you winter boots!

    2. amy
      March 20, 2010 at 2:31 pm

      Ha! I actually found my boots, which got buried somewhere, somehow, during the move from Milwaukee. I was able to wear them exactly once before the weather got nice and all of the snow melted.

      But yeah, it’s a lot easier to do this kind of work when it’s nice out. And in a couple of months it will be hard again when it’s too hot and humid.

    3. Amy Kuras
      May 10, 2010 at 9:27 am

      Duh. Made my earlier comment before I saw this. That pond is called “Millionaire’s Pond” and the willows that ring it are visible from the rear upstairs window of my house, which makes for pretty scenery. And those geese occasionally migrate over the fence — one of our neighbors used to feed them although I’d beg him not to.

      It took awhile to get used to living next to a cemetery. We’re separated by a fence and grapevines that screen the view, but we can still catch glimpses of and hear people and they can hear us. Our first Memorial Day here, about a month after we moved in, it felt so strange to be barbecuing and having a beer while people were decorating graves just a few yards away, and sometimes I see people obviously grieving while I’m outside playing with my kids, which is a strange juxtaposition. For the most part, though, I’m so happy we chose this location and love having such a beautiful, peaceful place bordering our backyard.

    4. amy
      May 10, 2010 at 9:06 pm

      Millionaire’s Pond! I love it.

      Woodlawn really is a beautiful place, although I can imagine the feelings of discord it might create to live right behind it. Even though I’m getting used to spending time in cemeteries, I still feel edgy when I first pass through those gates. It’s a strange border to cross over, you know?

      I’m really glad you found the blog! Thanks for saying hello!

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    6. Nathan B.
      July 16, 2010 at 12:15 pm

      I also live adjacent to Woodlawn. Quietest neighbors around. ;)

      It’s neat being so close to so much history, and cemeteries have never bothered me. Guests sometimes get pretty unnerved when they discover they’re 50 ft. from grave sites. I like seeing the people visiting or attending ceremonies. Our favorite was a rowdy group of bikers. There was nothing sad about that funeral.

      Nice blog. I just discovered it and am glad you included Woodlawn in your Detroit cemeteries tour.

    7. Greg R.
      September 1, 2010 at 2:23 pm

      I have a Great Uncle, Great Aunt, A Cousin, A Great Great Uncle and Aunt buried in the huge Mausoleum at Woodlawn. I have taken many family members and friends back there to visit. They are always so surprised when we board the elevator to go down to see Great Uncle Charlie and Aunt Bertha under ground. They also are impressed by the beautiful private chaples with stained glass windows and furniture from our old family home still there! I also have 4 generations of family including my Dear Grandmother buried at Elmwood, Downtown Detroit. Both places have always brought me great comfort and pride. I’m happy to say that in recent years there have been many repairs and upkeep to Elmwood which in the early 80′s was showing much ware. It’s beautiful once again! Greg

    8. amy
      September 7, 2010 at 12:34 pm

      Greg – Amazing! I did not know about the underground crypts in the mausoleum. Thanks for reading & sharing!

    9. Kerry Chartkoff
      September 26, 2011 at 5:46 am

      I enjoy your blog. I would like to add that Woodlawn is also the final resting place for one of the Gilded Age’s greatest architects, Detroit’s own Elijah E. Myers. Myers was once one of the most prolific architects in America, designing buildings from coast to coast. Although he designed everything from private homes to courthouses to hospitals to jails, he is best remembered for state capitols: he designed more than any other architect in American history. The Michigan State Capitol was his first capitol commission and brought him to national attention. His burial place (he died virtually bankrupt in 1909) was unknown for many years, but was recently discovered in Woodlawn. In 2009, to mark the centennial of his death, a plaque describing his accomplishments was placed on his headstone. An identical plaque was mounted on the wall in his masterpiece in Lansing, the Michigan State Capitol.

    10. amy
      September 27, 2011 at 5:49 pm

      Kerry, thanks for the tip! What a fascinating story – I can’t wait to pay him a visit next time I go to Woodlawn.

      By the way – I saw you speak at Stevens T. Mason’s reburial last October. What a great event!

    11. Pingback: Cemetery of the Week #73: Woodlawn Cemetery | Cemetery Travel: Adventures in Graveyards Around the World

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    13. June 4, 2014 at 8:43 pm

      What’s up, just wanted to mention, I enjoyed this article.
      It was funny. Keep on posting!

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