Tour of Detroit's Woodlawn Cemetery yields surprising revelations

Francis X. Donnelly
The Detroit News

Detroit — Despite all the luminaries at Woodlawn Cemetery, one of the most visited sites involves someone who isn’t buried there.

That would be Michael Jackson. When the King of Pop died in 2009, fans left mash notes and stuffed animals at the Motown Historical Museum in Detroit. The tributes were placed in a vault and buried at Woodlawn.

A headstone for the King of Pop Michael Jackson is seen at Woodlawn Cemetery during a tour in Detroit on Saturday, October 9, 2021.

That was one of the surprising revelations during a tour of the cemetery Saturday by Preservation Detroit.

Another was this: The most photographed grave doesn’t belong to Aretha Franklin or Rosa Parks. Instead it is William H. Harrison, and not the former president of the United States.

This William H. Harrison was the owner of a Detroit granite company whose grave boasts a life-size statue of the Virgin Mary. The three steps leading to the saint read, “Hope, Faith and Love.”

“It’s beautiful. Definitely catches your eye,” said Marilyn Greene of Detroit, a frequent visitor to the cemetery.

As for well-known people who actually are buried there, Woodlawn Cemetery is full of them, a long procession of musicians, athletes, retailers, politicians, clergy and social activists.

Evan Pougnet of Flint takes a photograph of the Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin's final resting place at the Grand Mausoleum at Woodlawn Cemetery during a tour given by Preservation Detroit in Detroit on Saturday, October 9, 2021.

The tour was scheduled for three hours but couldn’t reach all of them, spread throughout 140 acres. The 22 people who took the tour had to drive for part of it.

A small sampling of the dignitaries: Franklin, Parks, members of the Temptations and Four Tops, auto magnates Edsel Ford and Dodge brothers Horace and John, businessmen J.L. Hudson and Fred Sanders and Detroit Mayor Hazen Pingree.

Kathleen Marcaccio, center, of Preservation Detroit, tells a brief  history at the J. L. Hudson crypt during a tour of the Woodlawn Cemetery in Detroit on Saturday, October 9, 2021.

One of the most moving parts of the tour involved the mother of the civil rights movement. No longer satisfied with remaining in the back, Parks sits in front of the cemetery.

Her name is engraved on two marble monuments at each door of the small Tudor chapel. Among the bouquet of flowers inside was one sporting an American flag.

If there was any doubt about her standing, it reads plainly on a wall in the chapel: “Mother of the modern-day civil rights movement.”

The crypt of civil rights activist Rosa Parks is seen at the Freedom Chapel at Woodlawn Cemetery in Detroit on Saturday, October 9, 2021.

A sadder note was sounded at the nearby grave of David Ruffin, one of the lead singers of the Temptations.

Ruffin later struggled with drugs and reportedly died broke, said tour guide Kathleen Marcaccio. Michael Jackson paid for his burial, she said.

But the singer of “My Girl” and “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” is still remembered, and not just by fans.

Recently left at his gravesite was a wreath that read “Dad.”

People tour the crypt of former Detroit Mayor Hazen Pingree during a tour at Woodlawn Cemetery in Detroit on Saturday, October 9, 2021.

The tour wasn’t Tina Maull’s first visit to the cemetery. The West Bloomfield Township resident used to come all the time while she was a student at University of Detroit Mercy.

She said the cemetery was an ideal spot to study. It’s quiet and few people are around.

When not sitting on the steps of a mausoleum studying, she sometimes explored the different graves. She knew about some of famous and infamous buried there, but didn’t know their back stories.

Which is why she came Saturday.

“I didn’t know their history,” she said. “So I’m kind of excited.”

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