Elmwood Cemetery was nearly empty at 9 a.m. on a gloomy Saturday morning, aside from the thousands of people buried there, of course.
It was rainy and gray, and the historical tour of the cemetery was much smaller than usual, according to tour guide Joannie Capuano, executive director of the Historic Elmwood Foundation. Rather than the typical 30-40 people on the tour, just four people huddled under umbrellas with their hoods up, seeking shelter from the seemingly never-ending rain as they traversed up and down hills and through the grounds, stepping between and around tombstones for two hours.
From Hollywood Forever to Sleepy Hollow to impressive New Orleans gravesites, the eeriness of cemeteries has always intrigued people. And in Michigan, it’s prime season for these tours, with cemeteries across the state and historical preservation groups, like Preservation Detroit, hosting them.
“From Civil Rights icon Rosa Parks to soul legend Aretha Franklin to mayors like Hazen S. Pingree to the founder of Stroh’s beer, tour-takers will walk the scenic cemeteries amid full autumn colors.” a Preservation Detroit news release reads. “Guests will hear the stories behind the famous (and infamous).”
Stretching 86 acres, Elmwood Cemetery is the oldest continuously operating, nondenominational cemetery in Detroit. It’s home to politicians, civil rights activists, and famed musicians alike — the National Park Service has even deemed it a significant site for the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom.
Famous cemetery gravesites in Michigan: 31 spots to find notable names
Capuano knows her stuff, and the tour began with a look at the site of the Battle of Bloody Run, a battle fought during Pontiac’s War in July 1763, when the British were ambushed and killed at such a level that the creek was red with blood. (It has since returned to its normal color.)
One notable Detroit figure buried at Elmwood is Dr. Charles H. Wright, founder of Detroit’s Museum of African American History.
“Wright was a medical doctor who had a passion for sharing the African American story with others, especially young children, and he collected artifacts and would load them in the family station wagon and take them around to schools,” Capuano explained. “Pretty soon, he didn’t have any space left in his garage, bought a house down the street, then didn’t have any space left there so he bought another building, eventually leading to today’s extraordinary Museum of African American History.”
The grounds at Elmwood are littered with tombstones of all shapes and sizes, remnants of people and traditions centuries and decades past. Some lay flat, others stand tall, and some have secret underground rooms that hold entire families.
Straight out of a Nancy Drew mystery novel, railroad magnate Albert Stevens and his family are buried under an intricately carved sarcophagus.
“There are several indicators on here that this is not what it appears to be … there are several different names, and a sarcophagus is supposed to have one coffin,” Capuano said. “You also have eight keyholes so if we unlocked this, the lid would come off and there would be a staircase going down below to a private family underground Mausoleum.”
Some of the memorials are less traditional than others, relying on symbolism and nature. One person’s grave is marked by a tree trunk with a round rock on top, Capuano said the trunk represents a life cut short, and the stone is symbolic of eternity.
George DeBaptiste, a well-known abolitionist and superintendent for Detroit’s Underground Railroad, along with James Robinson, a slave who fought as an officer in Washington’s army during the Revolutionary War, are also buried at Elmwood.
Inside a sleek, black box that stands out from every other grave in the cemetery lies Coleman Young, Detroit’s first Black mayor.
For those less interested in politicians or activists, famed MC5 musician Fred “Sonic” Smith rests there, as well.
Cemetery tours attract a variety of people, all of whom are interested in the history of the city. Capuano said attendance spikes as spooky season turns into full gear and tourgoers test their luck with the cursed tombstone.
Trish Cain said she’d been wanting to come to Elmwood for a tour for years, and she thought it was insightful and the grounds are beautiful.
Royal Oak resident Michelle McLane moved to the city recently and is doing what she can to learn more about Detroit’s history and see as many of the attractions as possible.
“I’m a history nerd … people don’t talk enough about African American history, we need to celebrate it more. We celebrate our white folks but we need to celebrate our people of color, too,” she said. “And I love the trees.”
Tours at Elmwood and other metro Detroit cemeteries are a great way to get into the Halloween spirit. Preservation Detroit, a nonprofit that strives to “create a Detroit where cultural, architectural, and community preservation is integrated into every aspect of the city’s development,” is hosting tours at a variety of cemeteries each weekend of October.
Tickets are required for Preservation Detroit tours, and the proceeds go toward the nonprofit in its goal of preserving the city’s history and built environment.
The schedule for Preservation Detroit’s 2021 Cemetery Tours is:
- Oct. 16 Mount Elliott
- Oct. 23 Mount Olivet
- Oct. 30 Woodlawn
Contact Emma Stein: email@example.com and follow her on Twitter @_emmastein.