Blog: Richard Bak

For a study in subterranean culture, look no deeper than Richard Bak, author of Boneyards: Detroit Underground. In his explorations this week, Bak unearths the migration of bodies from Detroit to suburban cemeteries, a burial ground absorbed by an auto plant, and visits a pet graveyard. RIP, Fido.

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.