Books: ‘Boneyards’

A new volume by Richard Bak explores metro Detroit’s cemeteries and burial customs

It may seem a bit macabre to devote an entire volume to metro Detroit’s cemeteries, funerals, and burial customs through the years, but Richard Bak’s Boneyards: Detroit Under Ground, (Wayne State University Press, $34.95), avoids ghoulishness, treating death as a natural and inevitable component in the cycle of life. His tone is respectful, but an occasional irreverence leavens his otherwise gloomy-seeming subject. Numerous photographs, both vintage and contemporary, illuminate the text.

Bak, a frequent contributor to Hour Detroit, gives equal attention to small burial grounds, such as Beth Olem Cemetery in Hamtramck or Millar Cemetery in Clinton Township (both virtually abandoned) as he does to large resting places, such as Elmwood, Mount Olivet (Detroit’s largest cemetery), and Woodlawn.

Along those same lines, the passing of a little-known 18-year-old who died in World War I receives as much ink as the funerals of such notable Detroiters as Henry Ford and Rosa Parks. Death, it seems, is the great equalizer: All men and women are uniform in stature.

But sadly, some go to their graves anonymously. Bak mentions the “unclaimed dead” whose modest markers include not a name, but a number, and a prostitute whose disgraced family had only her first name, “Polly,” engraved on her stone.

The author also includes the “Graveyard of the Forgotten Cons” — Cherry Hill Cemetery in Jackson, where unclaimed convicts, either without family or irrevocably estranged from them, go to their final rest.

Bak chronicles the changing mores and customs toward death and dying, from Sunday streetcar lines that went exclusively to cemeteries for mourners’ visitations, to a mercifully short-lived “drive-in” funeral home in the 1970s, to today’s omnipresent roadside shrines that honor those who’ve died in traffic accidents.

Boneyards may be concerned with the dearly departed, but the book is not without relevance; a recurring theme in the book is this: How we treat the dead says volumes about the living.

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