19975 Woodward Ave
Detroit, MI 48203
Bella Morte Rating: 5 Tombstones
From the moment we first beheld her, we knew we had been correct in choosing Woodlawn as our primary Detroit graveyard destination. A Garden Cemetery in the finest sense, the entrance was lined with stately trees which beckoned us onwards with their still-skeletal winter fingers.
Just beyond the office, the first building we spotted had a number of seven-day votive candles burning along the edge of a semi-circular outside the front doors. This was the Freedom Chapel where Rosa Parks had recently been entombed. We tried to get in, but the door was locked. Frustrated, we drove around looking for another door. We failed to find one but, as we rounded the front of the chapel, a gentleman who worked for the cemetery pulled up in a car and asked if we’d like to go in. We said “Yes” and he quickly obliged.
The Freedom Chapel is small. A short corridor lined with crypts opens into the main chapel area which has a wall of plain glass-fronted cremation niches at the back and, up front, a sanctuary with gorgeous stained glass widows and two rows of crypts (five each) on either side. Rosa Parks’ mortal remains lie in this sanctuary area, between those of her mother and husband, just beyond the reach of people under 6’ tall. It was awesome to reflect on her life and accomplishments there and we spent some time doing just that as well as conversing with the gentleman who so kindly let us in.
After about 20 minutes, we departed—determined to locate the cemetery’s community mausoleum as the next part of our “tour.” After a few glorious minutes of winding slowly past impressive columns, private mausoleums and a sparkling lake, we pulled up to the imposing, grey, three-story stone structure. Inside, the mausoleum was chilly, which only helped add to the eerie aura. Silence. No living souls around. Just the way we like it. And so we wandered through the corridors.
There was the usual fare of outdated furniture, musty smells, dark hallways and private crypts in recessed areas. The crypt fronts had bronze letters which were merely glued on. That meant, more often than not, letters and dates had fallen off. An air of neglect was everywhere…from the aforementioned fallen letters and dates, to the burned out light bulbs.
The mausoleum had an old glass-fronted niche section across from the restrooms in the basement, but these were not at all remarkable, being the typical bronze books, vases and rectangles that speak of uninspired memories. There were also some wooden, free-standing double crypts looming dark and large in the main hallway as well as a bank of newly-installed glass-front niches. Most had yet to be occupied.
Emerging from the mausoleum after thorough exploration, we headed across the pavement to the cemetery’s lovely water-feature—a lake spanned by a glistening white arched bridge. Little did we know as we approached the water’s edge that we were in for a cemetery misadventure…for, as my Bella Morte companion paused, camera raised to her eye, I turned and noted (casually, at first) a goose strolling towards me. As he drew ever closer, I noticed his neck elongating and his head dropping closer to the grass. As I studied him, his pace quickened and soon he was racing toward us, beak open, pink tongue showing and a guttural hiss emerging from the depths of his long black throat. We took off running, my companion around the back of the Ford stones, me around the front. We reunited on the far side, none the worse for the wear and with the goose safely behind us. Amazed by his ill humour, but understanding it was mating season, we followed the pavement around to the other side of the lake where a white mausoleum surrounded by beautiful balustrades seemed lit from within beneath the early afternoon sun. But, alas, like a scene from a horror film, the evil goose emerged from between a stand of shrubs just as my compatriot prepared to take a picture. This time, he didn’t dawdle at all. Rather, he lowered his head, began running and then…took off…flying directly at us, all the while making that hideous hissing noise! We fled from him, but I couldn’t help turning to see where he was. As I looked, my partner moved off to my right and he followed after her, diving so low that, in the process of ducking to escape, she crashed to the ground, camera still in hand! At that, I charged him and he fluttered back far enough for me to grab my companion and make good our escape, uncertain whether to laugh or scream.
Since we wanted to explore the lake area, and being wary of the geese, we grabbed a wooden stake that had been placed as a marker for snow plows. It was about 5’ in length and hefty enough to hurt or even kill an attack goose if need be. We knew the goose had only been protecting his nesting grounds, but he certainly was overly-aggressive. As it turned out, the geese we encountered during the remainder of our explorations were disinterested in us, being content to tear at tufts of grass and, on occasion, hiss at and charge each other.
Woodlawn is a veritable Who's Who of auto industry magnates. Awe-inspiring mausoleums bearing the Ford and Dodge names vie for space along the banks of the shimmering lake, although some have eschewed the ostentatious or, at least, attention-grabbing structures in favour of the restrained and tasteful elegance of smaller private, above-ground crypts. Of course, we at Bella Morte appreciate the romance and grandeur of the more imposing structures and the graceful lines of sculptures, but even we must admit the sight of an above-ground crypt prompts feelings of wonder and delight, too.
Aside from automobile greats, Woodlawn is the favoured resting spot of numerous politicians, bankers, business tycoons and even a few musicians. Generally speaking, however, the less-than-famous can and do create monuments that are as beautiful (and oftentimes more so) than their more wealthy tomb-mates and this fact is well-supported at Woodlawn. The evocative forms of mourning women and inspiring angels grace graves that bear family names with no "famous" history attached just as often as not.
As we neared the end of our journey, we spotted a carriage hearse being pulled by two white horses. We parked where it appeared to be headed and watched as the procession wound its way along the pavement, finally coming to rest before a grave several hundred feet from the Freedom Chapel. A Military Honor Guard stood at attention on the opposite side of the funeral tent. We watched for about ten minutes before wandering off. Some time later, we heard the Honor Guard fire three rounds into the still, afternoon air. Unfortunately, our reverie was interrupted by the tolling of a nearby church bell which, at that hour, indicated the cemetery gates would soon be closing. It was with great reluctance that we got into our car and drove away.
It was easy for us to spend the entire day exploring the grounds of Woodlawn without ever hitting a "bad spot." From the haunting community mausoleum, to the monuments of the well-known and obscure, the cemetery is a resplendent jewel in the midst of a largely-dilapidated city (though, to be fair, the graveyard is in a nice part of town). Woodlawn earned 5 Tombstones on the Bella Morte rating scale and it is a cemetery we feel certain we will visit again. Its splendid aura, truly remarkable memorials, plentiful trees and irresistible charm will reward any who travel through her gates.