A Grave Tale

Stories of haunted spirits arising from the dead are fodder for Halloween tales old and new from Pet Cemetery to Hocus Pocus. But this tale concerns the undead owners convicted of stealing script from Michigan crypts.

I live behind Woodlawn Cemeterty, where taps, bugles and bagpipes play for frequent funeralsm, where I thread my bicycle and express silent prayers by stately mausoleums and gravestones for Councilwoman Kay Everett, the Dodge brothers, the Fords and the Hudsons.

There, just off Woodward Ave. on the city's northern edge, lie people whose names represent major Detroit streets — Groesbeck, Joy and Couzens. It also houses Barbara Ann Karmanos, whose name graces many cancer clinics in town, plus two of the original Four Tops and civil rights heroine Rosa Parks. And there are magnificent tributes to lesser-known names, like Edward Edgar Hartwick, son of the founders of Hartwick Pines State Park in Grayling.

So many people think of a cemetery as a warehouse for the dead. Yet for many in my neighborhood, the cemetery is a place that's quite alive as a nature preserve, a monument to the finest granite architecture and a quiet spot for reading and contemplation.
Historic cemeteries like Woodlawn are so valuable to the present — to families and preservationists — it's scary to think that these Detroit cemeteries were almost lost to a series of swindlers.

Audacious greed caused untold damage to Detroit’s private, for-profit cemeteries, Forest Lawn Memorial Park, Grand Lawn Cemetery & Mausoleum, Woodlawn Cemetery, and Woodmere Cemetery among 24 other Michigan places of eternal rest.

The hero in this tale isn't some fictional ghost chaser or demon hunter. It's a journalist. It took several years of bulldog reporting by an award-winning Detroit scribe Norm Sinclair for the state of Michigan and, eventually, various lawmakers to put a stake through the profiteering efforts of white-collar grave robbers.

Sinclair, a 30-year journalist for the Detroit News, a Pulitzer Prize finalist and ace investigative reporter, helped uncover $70 million raided from the trust funds of cemetery consumers that eventually sent at least two individuals to jail and brought about 39 counts of embezzlement.

Digging up the story

Sinclair was the only reporter to respond when whistle-blower, Gary Eppolito, former manager of Oakland Hills Memorial Gardens in Novi, sounded the alarm to the media in late-1990s. Creepy things were happening in numerous graveyards, ever since Loewen Group, a now-bankrupt company from Vancouver, bought out a moderate owner.

"A fellow that used to work for the owner of a half dozen cemeteries in the city of Detroit started calling. He said there were some guys up to no good. I didn’t know anything about cemeteries, but I knew how to follow the money," Sinclair says.

How millions upon millions of funds vanished from graveyards is a long and wicked tale, according to Sinclair. (A good explaintion can be found in "A Swindle to Die For," by Kurt Eichenwald in Conde Nast’s online magazine, www.Portfolio.com.)
Sacred trust funds, guaranteed by Michigan law and ostensibly watched by the Michigan Cemetery Commission, are accumulated from a portion of every burial plot, crypt or headstone purchased. The money also pays to mow grass, repair roads, pay grave diggers and plant flowers. Cemetery owners are allowed to make prudent investments to assure funding for future generations of visitors.

Sinclair found the batch of white-collar grave diggers were anything but "prudent." Through numerous dead ends, indifference of newspaper editors and stonewalling by state agencies, he kept poring over bushels of boring spreadsheets until the numbers unconcealed the path of money laundering from the cemetery to the Cayman Islands.

He continued investigating between his regular assignments, often working well into the night. He couldn’t quit.
"People kept calling me all the time. Consumers out there were being bilked. I couldn’t throw these people under the bus," Sinclair says. "We found evidence of bodies being warehoused while (alleged) mausoleums were being built."

Players in the cemetery swindle included a local attorney, an Oklahoma gas and oil speculator, along with suspicious practices by representatives of blue-chip companies.

Players in the cemetery swindle included a Craig Bush, a former Miller Canfield Attorney from Birmingham, Oklahoma gas and oil speculator Clayton Ray Smart, and representatives of blue-chip companies.  Many are under investigation. Smart is in jail in Memphis charged with stealing $20 million from six cemetery-funeral homes in Tennessee. Bush has $22 million in accounts frozen until the state of Michigan completes its trail of money. Another two, a broker and lawyer, face charges of graveyard fraud.

Other small players are facing recrimination from the 39 felony counts brought against Smart and his team by Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox. The money is still lounging in the Cayman Islands and investigators from the Internal Revenue Service are involved.

A new owner, David Shipper of New Jersey, recently purchased the 28 financially troubled cemeteries for $32 million from the state of Michigan, which seized the properties in spring 2006 when Cox found evidence of widespread fraud in the previous owners. The Michigan Funeral Directors Association still question who will maintain the properties.

Damaged heritage

Anger wells up when Sinclair tours the ravaged graveyards. He sees crumbling brick pillars at Grand Lawn, green mold creeping up the family mausoleums at Woodlawn, crabgrass choking out grass at Woodmere. Dead trees haunt the daylight. Families still sob on the phone with him. An 89-yar old woman tried for six years to get the correct marker on her husband’s grave, to no avail.

"Cemeteries are part of our heritage," Eppolito says, noting 15,000 graves and thousands of burial plots were involved since he first alerted Sinclair of troubles. Over 130 families filed complaints with the cemetery commissioner’s office in Lansing. "A society that cares about its past would be concerned about its future. Someone has to be a steward, a guardian of the properties."

Cemeteries have been a beacon for architectural students and historians to study construction and culture. More careful attention to cemeteries could help thwart future problems.

More careful attention to cemeteries could help thwart future problems, according to Isaac David Kremer, Detroit historian. 

"Many people come to cemeteries to see the architecture," Kremer said. Noted architects, such as Louis Sullivan and Henry Hobson Richardson practiced style and design on mausoleums and crypts they would use to build homes and skyscrapers in Chicago. "I suspect some of the same Detroit architects created family homes in Palmer Woods and Boston-Edison, and mausoleums in Woodlawn," he says.

Thanks to Sinclair's work, the cemetery gates are still open to mourners and seekers of history and solace.

Meanwhile, the leaves are changing at Woodlawn, where ducks swim by Willow Lake, oblivious to problems. Autumn sunlight bounces off the stately granite monuments. A group of mourners stand under a burgundy tent as a lone bagpipers plays, "Amazing Grace," to a deceased loved one. The curious stroll through to look at the grand, historic markers.

The business of life and death continues.

Read more on touring Detroit's historic cemeteries here: www.modeldmedia.com/features/eliteeternity.aspx


The Modestly Designed Edsel Ford Family Crypts

The Grinnell Mausoleum

The Unusual Booth Crypt, Founder of WJLB, His Initials

Roy Chapin, One of the Founders of Hudson Motors, on the Pond

The Hudson Mausoleum

All Photographs Copyright Dave Krieger

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