Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Woodlawn Cemetery, Detroit

So would Detroit have such a thing as a Victorian-era cemetery? I was headed there on business, so I wanted to find out. Detroit in the dead of winter didn’t sound all that enticing, so why not just visit the dead, you know? If San Antonio, Texas had a Victorian cemetery (which surprised me when I was there some years ago), Detroit must too, I supposed. A cursory search on the Internet turned up the gem, Woodlawn Cemetery.

A few miles north of downtown Detroit (on Route 1, Woodward Avenue), sits this amazing, star-studded cemetery (which has been in existence since 1895). Seriously, for star-power, this place ranks up there with the best of them. Notables buried there? Berry Gordy’s family, Edsel Ford, The Dodge Brothers, Rosa Parks, George Trendle (creator of The Lone Ranger and The Green Hornet!), various Motown musicians, Albert Cobo (Mayor of Detroit after which famed Cobo Hall is named – c’mon, you remember the movie Detroit Rock City, where the teeners were trying to get to the KISS concert at Cobo Hall …?). Anyway, I was quite looking forward to my visit.

The visit itself was wonderful, but getting there was quite tense. My flight from Philadelphia was due into Detroit at 3 pm and Woodlawn closed at 5 pm. At best, I would have an hour inside the cemetery. At worst, I’d never make it. But I aimed high, and wanted to try.

Abandoned buildings along Detroit's Woodward Avenue.

I flew out of Philly in my green “Underdogs” T-shirt the day after the Eagles won Superbowl 52. Riding high! That is, until I hit the airport and saw that my flight was delayed, and I would now be arriving in Detroit at 3:40 pm [Expletive Deleted]! Still worth trying? You bet. My back up plan was a pet cemetery near 8 Mile Road (yes, the one made famous by rapper Eminem).

I call Woodlawn on a whim (that’s how my mind works, whims and misfires, basically). I ask whether the office closes or the gates are closed at 5 pm. The kindly woman tells me that “The office closes. The gates are closed at dusk (heart races).” This being winter (early February to be exact), I offer, “So the gates are closed around 6pm?” “Well, she says, “between 5:30 and 5:45.” Oh well, better than 5 pm. I just bought myself a half hour, perhaps.

My plane touches down, taxis forever to the terminal, and finally pulls to a stop. 4 pm. I get up to stretch my legs; can’t go anywhere as I have to wait for twenty-two rows of passengers ahead of me to exit. Then I realize former vice president Joe Biden is sitting in the seat ahead of me. Autograph seekers are murmuring. I’m sensing a log jam soon. I tell Mr. Biden that my wife saw his lecture in Philadelphia recently and she enjoyed his book. He says, “Thanks for saying so.” Not much else you can say to a celebrity at close range. Finally the line is moving! We get up to the cockpit …. and the pilot asks for the Vice-POTUS’s autograph! DAMN!

Vice-POTUS Joe Biden on the plane
To baggage claim, then to the Enterprise Rental Car shuttle bus. 4:15 pm. When the bus dumps ten of us at the auto pickup spot, all the counters are open and we all immediately get a customer service agent! The smiling young man behind the desk asks me if I’m in Detroit on business or pleasure. I stare blankly at him. People come here on vacation? I say I need to be at Woodlawn Cemetery by five and he drops all the mushy stuff and gets me into my car in about seven minutes. All the while, thrilled-to-be-there Enterprise employees are offering us all bottles water and bags of popcorn. Something’s up here, but I’m not sure what ….

I’m doing 80 mph heading east on I94 toward Detroit in my rental mid-sized, watching for cops in the rear-view. I get off I94 onto Route 10 North, and its 4:45pm. I claw my way up Woodward Avenue, past mile after mile of abandoned commercial buildings. Warehouses, movie theaters, fast-food joints, etc., boarded up, graffitied, missing roofs, doors, windows. If you’re an abandoned site photographer, this is the place to be. Woodlawn Cemetery is across from the Fairgrounds, just south of 8 Mile Road.

As I write this, I realize that you already know that I made it to Woodlawn – you see the photos here! But, allow me to continue my story. Fact is, until I pulled up to the property and saw the open gates at 4:55 pm, I really was never sure I’d get in.

The cemetery was covered in a blanket of pure white snow, it was quiet and cold - twenty degrees. I pulled up to the grand granite office building and went inside. No one at the desk. Heart races. I walk into the anterooms saying, “Hello …?” A gentleman sees me and tells me someone would be right with me. I go back to the waiting area and he returns shortly with a woman who sits behind the desk. I blurt out something like, “Hi, I’m visiting from Philadelphia and I know you’re closing soon but I’d like to get a map or something that shows where certain people are buried …” I try not to sound rushed. They ask me which graves I’d like to visit. First and foremost, Rosa Parks. The gentleman says, “2-4-6-8 ….. and if that doesn’t work, try 0-2-4-6-8.” No idea what he’s talking about. Then it hits me, "The combination to a community mausoleum?" “Yes. Her crypt is in the Rosa Parks Freedom Chapel, just across the driveway.” The woman tells me where inside to find her crypt, adding, “She’s buried with her husband.”

Inside the Rosa L. Parks Freedom Chapel and mausoleum

She spent another five minutes with me, giving me maps showing where the Fords and Dodges and Hudsons are buried. She seemed happy that I asked where Berry Gordy’s family plot was (Gordy, founder of Motown Records, is still alive). I thanked her, grabbed the maps, and headed to the chapel. 5 pm. Maybe I’ve got a half hour.

"By refusing to give up her seat to a white man on a Montgomery, Alabama, city bus in 1955, black seamstress Rosa Parks (1913—2005) helped initiate the civil rights movement in the United States." www.history.com/topics/black-history/rosa-parks 


I made up the security code for the chapel, by the way. If you want the real one, you need to ask the people in the office. Crypts line the walls leading to the central chapel area. Rosa’s crypt is to the right. Someone had left a rose in the vase, so I plucked a petal from it to take home to my eight-year-old daughter Olivia, who has studied Rosa Parks in school. February being Black History Month, it felt right to visit her first. Respectfully, I left the chapel, being careful not to slip on the ice as I hurried to my car.


I needed to at least drive through Woodlawn, to get the general feel of the place. It is rather lovely in winter. Curved roads, a beautiful lake, ornate mausoleums and with some grand Victorian statuary sprinkled throughout. On my left up a hill was a hauntingly beautiful white marble statue in a glass case. Snow was about eight inches deep, so I opted not to climb the hill. I drove most of the way around Section 10, hoping I would see Berry Gordy’s marker without getting out of the car. 


Mercifully, the sections are not square, and are not large, so you can see most of the monuments without much difficulty. The Gordy family plot came into view rather suddenly as I drove around the other side of the section. I got out of the car to see the red granite sculpture up close. Gordy, founder of Motown Records and producer to the stars, is still alive but a few of his family members are buried here. (Gordy discovered and developed recording artists Marvin Gaye, The Supremes, The Jackson 5, Stevie Wonder, and on and on and on!) He owns a mausoleum at Forest Lawn Cemetery in California, which may end up as his final resting place. (There is a rather amusing debate as to whether Michael Jackson is buried here in the Gordy plot - see link).

Ironically, the site I had the most difficulty finding is arguably Woodlawn’s largest funerary structure – the gigantic Dodge Brothers' Egyptian-themed mausoleum. This final resting place of the automotive pioneers is the only monument in Woodlawn that I located ahead of time on the Internet, so I knew what I was looking for. My map showed the name “Dodge” in both Sections 10 and 13, so I drove around both, but in vain. How could I miss something so large? Light was fading and I drove up toward the entrance gates to make sure they were still open. 5:15 pm. Still open. Lights on in the office. Cars still parked behind it. Did a U-Turn and headed back to Dodge. The beautiful bronze statue you see here with the sunflowers diverted my attention. I pulled over, got out of the car and spent about ten precious minutes photographing her from many angles. This sculpture is one of the most beautiful cemetery monuments I’ve ever seen. Such emotion, such sadness.

I should add that my main camera for this trip was my iPhone 6, with a chemical handwarmer packet rubber-banded to it! Ever since I’ve had it, cold temps drain a full battery to zero in about ten minutes and the fun is over. I also had my Canon G11 with me, as it is small and easy to pack.

I hopped back into the warm, running Hyundai and headed back into the center of the cemetery, realizing I had not tried driving around the lake in the opposite direction. Maybe I’d find the Dodge mausoleum that way. It was then that I realized I was not looking at two maps, one Section 10, the other 13, but two versions of the same map. Dodge was in lot 13 of Section 10. But then two deer diverted my attention.

One of three identical Ford family crypt covers in Woodlawn Cemetery, Detroit

I drove after them, thinking I might get some video of them near the bridge over the small peaceful frozen lake. Except, I was distracted by the three large black marble crypt covers labeled, “Ford.” I pulled over and walked through the crunchy snow around the back of them to see the inscriptions. Edsel Ford and his wife Eleanor are buried under one. I’ve heard that their mansion in Detroit is quite a sight to see. The three family markers are elegantly understated in their beauty, nothing elaborate at all. I wondered if there was one or three underground mausoleums.


I turned around to take the serpentine road in the opposite direction around the lake, for one last attempt at the Dodge Brothers. I knew I only had minutes left. As I crossed the main center road of the property, I noted with comfort that the gates were still open. 5:30 pm. Always know when your gates will close - being locked in a cemetery is not a pleasurable experience. It has happened to me, and I’ve had many close calls over the years.

Mausoleum of the Dodge Brothers, Horace and John

And then I saw the massive granite structure with twin sphinxes flanking the entrance. It had a set of inner and outer bronze doors, cast with the Egyptian winged deity, Horus, symbol above (sphere with wings) - I assume "Horace" Dodge helped choose the design!


Egyptian funerary style was quite popular in the Victorian era, people no doubt placed heavy emphasis on life after death. On many surfaces of the Dodge brothers' mausoleum, we also see the twin rising cobras, or uraeus, which symbolize protection - guardians of the gates of the underworld. 

Wikipedia describes the sphinx is a powerful Egyptian deity "viewed as benevolent but having a ferocious strength." This quite amused me after reading the biographies of Horace and John Dodge, as this describes them to a "T" (a Model T, perhaps, as you'll read in a moment)! Maniacal innovators and cutthroat competitors, the Dodges treated their employees amazingly well for the times (1920s). The Dodge plant had a “fully staffed medical clinic, a department to look after workers’ social needs, and, perhaps most significantly (and a fore-runner of Silicon Valley and 3M), a machine shop called “the Playpen” where men could fix or invent things after hours. Employees were served huge platters of sandwiches and pitchers of beer at lunch hours, paid for by the company” (ref.).

Like the twin sphinxes, the Dodge brothers were inseparable - they dressed in identical tailored suits and would not even open mail unless it was addressed to both of them! If not for automotive pioneers Horace and John Dodge, Henry Ford’s company would have disappeared in 1903. They redesigned the Model T to make it more reliable and marketable, and built all its parts for Ford, bailing Henry Ford out of near-bankruptcy! - read their fascinating story here.

What struck me as very distinctive to their mausoleum was the giant (I can’t even estimate its size) stained glass window in the center of its back wall. Pyramids! What an amazing design! Pyramids rise from the earth to the heavens, as the Egyptians expected would happen to them after death.  

It really was time to leave. Very cold and the light was fading. I rolled out of the gates at 6 pm (Thank you Woodlawn!), pulled the car over, got out and made this final photo of the illuminated “Woodlawn Cemetery” sign (that’s the Rosa L. Parks Freedom Chapel/mausoleum in the distance, at bottom left). I turned back for one last look at the imposing granite gatehouse just as a woman was closing the main gates behind her. I immediately thought of the Victorian notion of woman, the designated mourner.



I expect to return to Woodlawn at some point, as I now do business in Detroit. There is still the Hudson mausoleum to find, Michael Jackson's memorial (he's not buried here though), and the grave of George W. Trendle, creator of The Lone Ranger. I kind of felt like a Lone Ranger myself during this visit. No one (in their right mind) was out on the grounds this day except for me and the stellar ghosts of our collective past. All silent in the snow, with frozen beauty all around me.

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8 comments:

  1. Enjoyed reading this very much Ed ! Hi ho Silver !
    (owen)

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  2. Very entertaining piece - Incredible that you managed to see so much!

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  3. Thank you for this lovely travelogue of Woodlawn Cemetery. My grandmother, two uncles, and my father all rest in this grand environment. As I reside on the east coast, I've not had the opportunity to visit in wintertime.

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  4. I've been wanting to visit here forever (I live less than 20 miles away) Seeing your pics really make me eager to go, but I think I'll wait until its a wee bit warmer.

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  5. Thank you so much for all you did at Woodlawn Cemetery to bring it to us. I am from Detroit, Michigan. Although I live in Fairbanks, Alaska, we visit Michigan several times a year. I believe my Uncle and Aunt are buried at Woodlawn but I could be wrong. I so loved reading your story and seeing your wonderful photos! Thank you again!

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  6. What a wonderful account of your visit to Woodlawn Cemetery! I have driven by several times and never knew any of what you wrote. I say to come back and visit in the summer. It is gorgeous here then, as opposed to Philadelphia's hot mugginess (lived there for nearly 20 years before moving here in 2010).

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  7. Thanks for a great post. My house backs to the cemetery and I am there frequently. Do go when the weather is nice, there is much to see, including oddly friendly deer. Several mausoleums have beautiful stained glass windows, including at least one by Tiffany. Diana Ross' family is there as well. Many Motown Music Greats, the poet Edgar Guest as well as the man who wrote the tune to "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear, the wife and son of SS Kresge (fonder of Kresge Five and Dime, later Kmart), the Grinnel family (at one time the largest piano manufacturer in the world, and the Stroh family of beer brewing fame. If you liked the Dodge monument, check out the Avery's, also in the Egyptian style. Avery supplied the gypsum used to build the White City created for the World' Fair in Chicago in 1893. Be glad to meet you there if you'd like. Email me at sp48221@gmail.com. Also for those of you in the Detroit area--GO! It's so beautiful and a Detroit treasure--even people I know who have no interest in history or cemeteries have been dazzled. Kid friendly too!

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