Ilitch mausoleum a throwback to gilded age of Detroit
Southfield — The Ilitch family is nearing completion of a towering tomb for patriarch Mike Ilitch befitting the billionaire Little Caesars pizza mogul who owned the Detroit Tigers and Red Wings.
The neo-Classical mausoleum at Holy Sepulchre Cemetery in Southfield, carved out of white granite mined from a California quarry, features bronze doors and twin angels and serves as a throwback to a gilded age when lumber barons, auto industry pioneers and politicians built cavernous crypts in historic Detroit cemeteries.
The luxury project, built by the same firm that constructed memorials and mausoleums for rock star Jimi Hendrix and Tennessee Titans owner Bud Adams, comes after a prolonged delay that left the remains of one of the world's richest men temporarily interred in the lower level of a community mausoleum.
Ilitch, who died at 87 in February 2017, is not being buried alongside his parents in a Detroit cemetery. Instead, his final resting place is feet away from two former Detroit Tigers owners, some of Detroit’s most celebrated sports figures, mobsters and a Hollywood hairdresser killed by followers of Charles Manson.
“It’s really kind of refreshing, in a strange sense of the word, to see someone invest that kind of money in an old-fashioned burial,” said Michael Fisher, a relative of auto pioneer Charles T. Fisher, whose family is buried in the plot next to Ilitch. “You don’t see that anymore.”
Mausoleum construction represents a potential growth opportunity for the estimated $20 billion funeral industry when personal disposable income continues to climb and despite a rise in cremations. Holy Sepulchre, for example, is marketing 10 family estates with a range of custom options, including mausoleums, landscaping, benches, monuments and stone paths.
Mausoleums are an attractive option for people who do not want to be buried in the ground, said Michael Huggins, general manager of Roselawn Memorial Park near Monroe and second vice president of the Michigan Cemetery Association.
He has noticed a demand for private mausoleums at his cemetery, which can cost about $28,000.
"If you tell that to one person, they think it's the end of the world and that it costs too much," Huggins said, "but another person will say 'that's not bad, I paid twice that much for my truck.'"
The Ilitch mausoleum is considerably more expensive and on a grander scale, though the family would not discuss its construction or any details.
Fisher, a funeral home owner, had the chance to buy what would become the Ilitch plot in 1997. The price: $78,000.
The Ilitch mausoleum could cost $750,000 or more, Fisher estimated.
Holy Sepulchre Cemetery is a wooded, 350-acre oasis near 10 Mile and Telegraph, with a lake and wildlife, including wild turkeys that skittered across the Ilitch mausoleum site on a recent visit.
The Ilitch mausoleum was built for two: the pizza baron and his wife, Little Caesars co-founder Marian Ilitch, owner of MotorCity Casino.
The mausoleum, crafted out of a milky shade of granite called Sierra White, was built by Minnesota monument company Coldspring.
The Ilitch plot is in a high-profile spot on the eastern edge of the cemetery. The plot backs up to a forest and is 420 feet down the street from the mausoleum of Walter Briggs Sr., sole owner of the Tigers from 1935 to 1952.
The distance between the mausoleums is the same span between home plate and the center field wall at Comerica Park, home of the Ilitch-owned baseball team.
The mausoleum appears to be the largest at Holy Sepulchre but would not stand out at other local cemeteries favored by the rich and famous.
At Detroit's Woodlawn Cemetery, auto barons John and Horace Dodge are interred in an Egyptian Revival mausoleum larger than Ilitch's and guarded by two sphinxes. Next door is the Art Deco tomb of John Dodge's widow, Matilda Dodge Wilson.
The greats are never far from each other at Holy Sepulchre. Neither are the infamous.
The Ilitch mausoleum is on the opposite side of the cemetery from the mausoleum of former Tigers owner Frank Navin, who owned the team in the early 20th Century.
Navin’s private mausoleum is flanked by two giant bronze tigers that have developed a green patina while guarding the spot for almost 84 years.
“Mike Ilitch was a blue-collar guy but always understood the history of the Tigers and probably figured, ‘this is where Navin and Briggs are, that’s a good place for me to be buried,’” said Detroit author Richard Bak, who has written books about the Tigers and Red Wings, and “Boneyards,” an exploration of Detroit cemeteries.
Holy Sepulchre is the final resting place of several Hall of Famers, including Tigers stars Charlie Gehringer and Harry Heilmann and golfer Walter Hagen.
Reputed mafia boss Giacomo "Black Jack" Tocco is interred nearby, and so is Jay Sebring, the Southfield native and celebrity hairstylist killed by members of the Manson family in 1969.
The Ilitch mausoleum is the second place of interment at the cemetery for the billionaire.
After he died, he was interred in the lower level of the cemetery's community mausoleum at the end of the “Good Shepherd” wing.
The wing, blocked by brass gates, is a hall of mirrors reflecting Ilitch’s life.
The temporary plot faces a Detroit Red Wings and Tigers season ticket holder and is next to Farmington Hills skilled tradesman Walter Telega, 90, who died in 2013.
Telega's widow, Eleanor, is an avid Wings fan.
"If they're playing, you don’t bother her. She doesn’t have time for you," daughter Marlene Walczak said. "You have to make sure it's between periods."
The family was surprised to find Ilitch interred among people of more modest means.
"We were shocked," Walczak said. "To be such a well-known individual, I expected something a little grander."
Ilitch’s temporary burial spot is across the alcove from Red Wings and Tigers season ticket holder John Runyon’s space.
The retired information technology entrepreneur from Birmingham, who spoke to The News before dying at age 69 in September 2018, paid $18,000 for a spot in the middle of the wall.
“My middle daughter picked that spot. Her logic was, in the middle of the wall, she could put her hand on it,” Runyon said.
Runyon admired Ilitch.
"What I liked about Ilitch, if you look at the Red Wings when he took over the team, they had such lousy attendance, but he was a promoter and they gave a car away every game," Runyon said. "He really transformed the sport-venue industry into an entertainment sports venue."
Construction on the Ilitch mausoleum started this spring and is nearing completion.
Ilitch is a welcome addition to the cemetery, Fisher said.
"I had no anticipation that our new eternal neighbors would be the Ilitch family," Fisher said. "I jokingly said, 'They won't bring down property values of the neighborhood.'"