Blog: Richard Bak

Richard Bak's byline is a familiar one around town. For more than 25 years, he has been contributing a steady stream of features in such publications as Hour Detroit, The Detroit News, The Detroit Free Press, and Detroit Monthly. His latest book is Boneyards: Detroit Under Ground (Wayne State University Press), which explores how the dead have been treated (and mistreated) over the centuries and the various ways in which the living have attempted to keep their memories alive.

Photo by Brett R. Schutzman

Richard Bak - Most Recent Posts:

Post 3: Keeping Faith

My daily walks often take me past a local cemetery, where a few weeks ago a small grave marker first caught my attention. The stone, set alongside a wire fence, marks the final resting place of a girl named Faith, who lived a mere four days in 1957. Inscribed at the bottom of the stone is an addendum, of sorts: Parents Buried in Peoria, Illinois.

How odd. How sad. As someone blessed with two daughters myself, the sight of Faith's lonely looking grave always produces a certain melancholy in me. I wonder why the infant's parents didn't arrange, at some point, to have her remains disinterred and moved to where they had resettled. I understand cost could be a factor, and of course I have no idea of what the real story behind the infant's apparent abandonment is. But, personally, I know that there is no way my wife and I, faced with a similar situation, would ever allow ourselves to be separated by a couple hundred miles from a child of ours, no matter what was required to bring her back to us. It would be a priority. Family is important, even in death, which is why I am always strengthened when I see a monument or a circle of markers carrying the same surname. Most of my family lies in a cemetery within easy walking distance of my house. Dad, Grandma and Grandpa, my uncles and aunts, my nephew Stephen, who died of crib death in 1966, and many more all lie at rest within a few yards of each other. My siblings have purchased plots there. My wife and I still haven't decided whether we'll be buried there, too, or at an old Detroit cemetery where many immediate members of her family, including her mother, grandparents, and three sisters, all of whom died very young, lie. Whichever cemetery we decide on, it's comforting to know that, in the end, we'll be among family.

It's with all this in mind that I have conflicted feelings about a phenomenon that says something about the racial dynamic of Detroit. Each year the remains of several hundred whites are disinterred from Detroit's twenty-eight cemeteries and moved to graveyards in the suburbs. Mount Olivet, an old Catholic cemetery in the northeast corner of the city that is operated by the Mount Elliott Cemetery Association, alone accounts for about a hundred removals annually. The majority are transferred to Resurrection, Mount Olivet's sister cemetery in Clinton Township, where many of Detroit's Catholics relocated in the years following the 1967 riot. The families who spend several thousand dollars to move their loved ones (sometimes taking the tombstones with them) usually say that their motivation was convenience. They simply wanted Mom or Grandpa or their favorite uncle closer to home, a sentiment that I can certainly understand. But many admit that fear also was a factor. They say crime made visiting their family members' graves too dangerous.

Critics respond that the reports of crime, especially assaults and robberies inside graveyards, are overblown and that the exodus is simply a somewhat ghoulish extension of the "white flight" phenomenon that by the late 1970s had turned Detroit into a majority-black city. Dr. Stephen Vogel, dean of architecture at the University of Detroit Mercy, researched the matter for a 2005 study. "What it says to me is that there is a deeply ingrained fear on the part of suburbanites in terms of their attitude toward the city and its hold is very powerful and very deep," Vogel once told a Detroit News reporter. "When they're afraid to cross Eight Mile to visit a cemetery, it tells you what we're up against and any solutions are not going to be easy." I have personally never felt ill at ease inside a cemetery on either side of the historic dividing line between city and suburb, though I know that vandalism and scrapping remain problems in many Metro Detroit cemeteries. These are property crimes, not muggings and assaults, and by their nature occur at night when the grounds are—theoretically, anyway—free of visitors. But obviously the sight of a "tagged" tombstone or a missing bronze tablet can detract from the quality of one's experience when visiting a graveyard.

Although some graveyards, like Elmwood Cemetery and Royal Oak Cemetery, have been racially integrated since they opened in the 19th century, it's generally been forgotten that through the early 1960s most private cemeteries remained off-limits to minorities. Detroit's Grand Lawn Cemetery, for example, made its policy abundantly clear. "The cemetery is limited without exception to the use of the Caucasian Race," its booklet of regulations once stated. Of those cemeteries that did accept nonwhite burials, many had an isolated and less attractive area of the grounds (the "colored section") set aside for them. The fees were exorbitant, the hours of burial were inconvenient, and the funeral party often was required to use a side entrance.

One of the region's most significant cemeteries was developed in the 1920s by the Detroit Memorial Park Association, a group of local African American businessmen whose directors included druggist Dr. Arnold Toodle and mortician Charles Diggs. Tired of the indignities, the association sold enough stock to purchase a large section of undeveloped land in Warren to create a cemetery that was affordable and open to all. The first burial at Detroit Memorial Park Cemetery was in 1926. While the grounds proved a popular option for many of Detroit's black civic, business, religious, and political leaders (including Diggs, who would go on to become the first black Democrat elected to public office in Michigan), minorities remained unwelcome at most other cemeteries. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) held a mock burial of "Jim Crow" at their annual convention in Detroit in 1944, but the system of laws and customs that segregated nearly every aspect of American life would remain firmly in place for another generation.

In Michigan, the issue of segregated graveyards finally came to a head on August 10, 1960, when an official at Troy's White Chapel Cemetery halted the burial of George Vincent Nash, a sixty-six-year-old Winnebago Indian, just after his coffin had been lowered into the ground next to his wife's. The official explained that burials at White Chapel were "restricted to members of the Caucasian race." Later, the president of the cemetery association argued that it didn't matter that Nash was an honorably discharged veteran of World War I and that his wife, part Chippewa, had been buried in 1949 without incident. "If we make an exception in this case," he said, "some 40,000 plot owners would be able to take action against the cemetery because they paid for the restriction."

The American Legion buried Nash three days later at Perry Mount Park Cemetery in Pontiac after several other cemeteries refused to accept him. The Legion also promised to disinter Nash's wife and bury her alongside him. Meanwhile, lawmakers in Lansing took up the issue, with Senator Basil W. Brown of Detroit and Highland Park ultimately sponsoring legislation prohibiting discrimination by race or color by private cemeteries. The bill passed into law in 1961 and its constitutionality was upheld in a 1966 state Supreme Court decision. Although largely overlooked today, gaining equality inside Michigan's graveyards was considered a significant early victory in the Civil Rights movement. Nonetheless, an odd form of post-mortem segregation continues to this day in Metro Detroit.

Post 2: Silent City

Metropolitan Detroit is home to more than a hundred different ethnic groups, a remarkable diversity reflected in the variety of surnames carved into the gravestones at local cemeteries. Names like Vernier, O'Brien, Adamski, Schroeder, Giovanni, Lopez, and Hazimi indicate the different immigrant groups that have settled in Detroit over the years. The phrase "Rest in Peace" can found in such languages as Polish (Spoczywaj w Ookoju), Hungarian (Nyugodjék Békében), and Spanish (Descansa en Paz).

One of the most interesting but least accessible of the roughly 800 graveyards in southeastern Michigan is Beth Olem Cemetery, an abandoned site swallowed up by the General Motors Detroit/Hamtramck Assembly plant (better known as the Poletown plant). Beth Olem—which means "house of the world"—was established during the Civil War to service Congregation Shaarey Zedek. Most members were German and Polish Jews who settled on the near east side and worked as dry-goods peddlers. Beth Olem Cemetery (also called the Smith Street Cemetery) was the second Jewish burial ground established in Detroit; the first was a half-acre section established by Temple Beth El in a corner of Elmwood Cemetery in 1851. At the time Beth Olem opened, the area was rural, but over the next several decades, residences, small businesses, and Chrysler's Dodge Main factory sprang up around it.

In the early 1980s, 465 acres of the Poletown neighborhood were razed to make way for a Cadillac assembly plant. Despite the protests and lawsuits, GM and the cities of Detroit and Hamtramck successfully used the principle of eminent domain to displace 1,300 homes, 140 businesses, six churches, and a hospital. However, the automaker was prevented by state law from removing Beth Olem Cemetery, which by then had been dormant for decades as Jewish families moved to other parts of Detroit and the suburbs. Today, the 2.2-acre site is minimally maintained, regularly floods, and is kept off-limits to the general public.

There are an estimated 1,400 people interred at Beth Olem Cemetery, with the oldest legible tombstone dating back to 1876 and the most recent burial occurring in 1948. A number of the gravestones have been worn smooth by time and the elements, including one intriguing tablet from the early 1900s. There is no name, and there are no dates, just the cracked ceramic portrait of a woman whose image was captured in the prime of life. Her anonymity invites the inevitable questions. Who is she? How did she live? How did she die? What could she tell us of everyday life in Detroit a century ago? Even in the unlikely event that somebody today would remember her and care enough to visit, the opportunities are extremely limited. The cemetery, managed for Congregation Shaarey Zedek by Clover Hill Cemetery in Royal Oak, is open a total of just eight hours each year: from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on the Sundays preceding Rosh Hashana and Passover.

Post 1: Day of the Dead

Overshadowed by the sugar-fueled craziness that has become Halloween is a centuries-old tradition first celebrated in Mexico and Latin America. The origins of El Día de los Muertos—Spanish for "The Day of the Dead"— date back to the ancient Mayan and Aztec cultures, where ofrendas (offerings) were made to attract and comfort the spirits of departed loved ones. The holiday originally was held in the late summer, but Spanish Conquistadors moved it to November 1 and 2, in keeping with the Catholic holidays of All Saints Day and All Souls Day.

According to tradition, the spirits of children (los angelitos) visit on the first day, with adult ghosts dropping in on the next. Waiting for them inside homes and churches are altars built by friends and family members. A variety of items are displayed: candles, flowers (especially marigolds), religious artifacts, elaborately designed paper cutouts (papel picado), sugar skulls, and a sweet bread known as pan de muerto ("bread of the dead") that is often shaped into skulls or round loaves with bones. The ofrendas are meant to be highly personalized, so photographs and favorite possessions of the deceased are the most important items displayed. St. Anne's Church, one of Detroit's oldest and loveliest churches, always displays an amazing multi-tiered collection of offerings. For many celebrants, visiting loved ones' graves with gifts is part of the ritual.

Thanks to some savvy marketing by local Hispanic community leaders, El Dí
a de los Muertos has become an increasingly popular event in southwest Detroit, where most of the metropolitan area's Latinos live. Artistic works incorporating skulls and skeletons, more wry than morbid, are everywhere, reflecting the ancient attitude that bones are as much a symbol of rebirth as death. One of the coolest Day of the Dead characters I've seen—a skeletal bride and her groom that I dubbed "The Newly Deads"—was bought by a friend at a shop on Bagley. There are similarly colorful creatures found inside markets, restaurants, bakeries, and churches during the holiday festival.