May 12, 2015 by Amy Elliott Bragg
Every Cemetery in Detroit: Woodmere Cemetery (+ a special OBSCURA DAY tour!)
This post is part of my quest to visit every cemetery in Detroit, but it’s also a vehicle for an exciting announcement: On Saturday, May 30, I’m so thrilled to host an Obscura Day tour of Woodmere Cemetery, co-led by Gail Hershenzon, author of Detroit’s Woodmere Cemetery. The tour will focus on Woodmere’s significant role in the history of cremation in America. You can buy your tickets here. Obscura Day ahoy!
When Woodmere Cemetery was incorporated, in 1867, people complained that it was too far away. Some cab drivers threatened to “boycott” Woodmere, on account of the bad roads — which, let’s just take a wild guess here, were probably pretty muddy. (The roads were always muddy.)
But Woodmere being far away was the point of Woodmere. As Detroit continued to grow, it consumed its former rural spaces, making people strike out farther and farther to find pastoral retreats for burying their loved ones and building monuments to their own greatness. And they wanted more space, grander space, for creating a truly spectacular and nationally notable rural cemetery, in the tradition of Mount Auburn in Boston, Green-wood in Brooklyn, and Spring Grove in Cincinnati, which opened in 1855 and was researched as a model for Woodmere. (Eventually, they improved the roads — by the early 1880s, they were macadamized.)
They named the cemetery “Woodmere” for the land’s natural features: heavy woods, converging streams (including Baby Creek, named for the fur trader Jacques Baby, who owned land on both sides of the Detroit River). Said the Honorable Charles Walker of the site selection at the dedication address for Woodmere on July 15, 1869:
The vicinity of Detroit has but little of the wild or picturesque in its natural scenery — but little even of rich variety. Our noble river is the one great feature in the landscape. We have no mountains, no deep ravines, no rocks or waterfalls, and in the absence of these striking features we are apt to overlook the many beauties nature has spread with so lavish a hand all around us. Many of you, even those who thought themselves familiar with the suburbs of our city, will, I think, be surprised that a spot could be found so near that combined so many elements which peculiarly fit it for a large and beautiful cemetery.
Woodmere was praised in its day for its gorgeous landscaping, which preserved and enhanced the landscape’s natural beauty with lush foliage, old-growth elm and willow trees, and roadways that followed the contours of the land. Trumpeted an article in the October 1912 issue of Park and Cemetery:
From the very inception of Woodmere Cemetery it has been the aim and ideal to exclude all that is morbid and depressing and provide a beautiful resting place for those who sleep. The symbol of Woodmere is hope and life, not grief and death.
Two women at Woodmere Cemetery. Photo via the Detroit Public Library Digital Collections.
Woodmere’s far-awayness didn’t last very long, and by the end of the 1800s, industry and urban encroachment were part of the cemetery’s identity. (Today, you can stand atop its rolling hills and gaze upon smokestacks and smelters of the Ford Rouge plant.) But this set the stage for Woodmere to play a supporting role in a curious, rarely-discussed chapter of cemetery history: Woodmere is an important site in the history of cremation as a widely-accepted American burial tradition.
Cremation had an influential champion in Dr. Hugo Erichsen, founder of the Cremation Association of North America. Erichsen also founded Detroit’s first crematorium, shown here under construction in 1886:
The original Detroit Crematorium, under construction in 1886. Via the Detroit Public Library.
Erichsen wrote a book that advanced a holistic, sorta-academic, and occasionally graphic argument for cremation as a better way to deal with the dead, and outlined the many benefits of cremation over ground burial, considered in the context of world history, urban sanitation, and general “ickiness” factor. Erichsen and his contemporaries in the cremation advocacy camp were mostly worried about health and cleanliness, as urban populations exploded in areas that had previously been rural and secluded. Groundwater filtering through graveyards was a chief concern, and Erichsen cited Woodmere as a prime offender:
Not long ago the Detroit Evening News declared that the wells in the neighborhood of Woodmere Cemetery do not catch the rainwater until after it has been filtered through the thousands of graves in the cemetery, filled with decaying bodies, and that no water is obtained in the vicinity which is not discolored and has a brackish taste. After a heavy rain the impurities are most pronounced. The residents of Woodmere have long ago given over the use of water as a beverage. I do not blame them. I would not like to drink fluid extracted of dead man myself.
These arguments about “impurities” were later soundly scientifically disproven (also, c’mon Erichsen, all well water tastes “brackish”), but the appeal of skipping the disgusting process of decomposition and going straight to ashes / dust appealed to a lot of people, and Erichsen’s intellectual work is partly responsible for the prevalence and normalcy of cremation today. (Erichsen’s aim was to see cremation make in-ground burial obsolete, but, you know, you can’t win them all.)
In 1929, the Detroit Crematorium closed its doors, and the columbarium was moved (under Erichsen’s supervision) to Woodmere’s chapel, designed by Donaldson & Meier in 1914. It’s still there today, waiting for you to drop by and visit. So is Dr. Erichsen, who died in 1944, and whose cremains were interred in the columbarium.
And that’s why Woodmere is the cradle of cremation in the Northwest. I didn’t come up with that myself:
To get the rest of this cemetery’s propers out of the way: I first visited Woodmere five years ago (I can’t believe I’ve been working on this blog for five years!), and I’ve been back many times since, on my own and with tour groups. It’s the best place to get acquainted with Detroit’s pre-automotive captains of industry, including Dexter Mason Ferry (my fave lately), Hamilton Carhartt (yes, that Carhartt), tavern keeper Conrad Ten Eyck, frontiersman and Two-Way Inn founder Philetus Norris, lumber baron David Whitney, tobacco entrepreneurs John Judson Bagley and Daniel Scotten — both of whom were founding trustees of the cemetery — and James Vernor, civil servant and creator of Vernor’s, the ginger-ale. Victims of the 1932 Ford Hunger March* are also buried at Woodmere.
Woodmere has also been the target of some scrapping in the past five years, which has changed the character of the cemetery subtly but in an awful way. Here’s the Stevens Shipman memorial, as I photographed it in 2010:
And here it is today, missing its doors:
Hopefully this is a temporary blight on a cemetery with a long, noble, and exceptionally beautiful history.
Once again, tickets for the Obscura Day tour on May 30 are here. I hope you’ll join us!
*There’s some conflicting information about a fifth Hunger March victim, Curtis Williams, who died a few months after the march, possibly from injuries he incurred that day. It is widely believed that Williams was not allowed to be buried with the other Hunger March victims because he was black, but Hershenzon disputes this. Cemetery records exist for black burials dating all the way to the cemetery’s founding, and Williams was cremated at Woodmere. It seems strange to me that he’d be allowed to be cremated but not interred there. One source says that his ashes were transferred to the care of Charles Diggs, a prominent black funeral director and founder of Detroit Memorial Park, which was organized to serve Detroit’s growing black population and give them an alternative to what may have been systemic racism if not official segregation — bad service, rip-off pricing, or whatever. It’s also unclear what happened to Williams’ ashes, although one “people say” story goes that his ashes were scattered over Woodmere from a plane.
I’m not sure what to make of any of this — it seems to me that just because a cemetery was always integrated doesn’t mean it couldn’t have made a racist decision based on contemporary unrest, shifting social currents, or plain old bad leadership. But my efforts to find an original source for Williams’ refused burial have stalled, at least for now. If anyone has any leads or sources about this, please get in touch!