Detroit History Tour: Woodlawn Cemetery

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.


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.

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