Charlie LeDuff, Detroit News, August 12, 2008
At precisely 8:57 a.m., under an overcast sky, Francesco and Francesca Imbrunone were re-laid to rest. A man in a dark suit stood over their remains proclaiming that they “await the resurrection.”
By now the statistics are as well known in London as they are in Livonia. Detroit has lost half its population since its heyday of the 1950s, and every year the city hemorrhages an estimated 5,000 people more. First it was white flight to the suburbs; then with the city’s continued spiral into poverty and violence, blacks began to flee to those same suburbs. And while census figures show that whites are returning to some of the nation’s largest cities, Detroit is experiencing a flight of a different kind. As the Imbrunones’ second funeral demonstrates, Detroit is experiencing the flight of the dead.
The movement of the dead from the nation’s largest black city to its overwhelmingly white suburbs is a small, though socially symbolic phenomenon, revealing the grinding problems of race, crime and economics that plague both sides of Eight Mile.
From 2002 through 2007, the remains of about 1,000 people have been disinterred and moved out of the city, according to permits stored in metal filing cabinets in the city’s department of health. Looked at in another way, for about every 30 living human beings who leave Detroit, one dead human being follows. Moreover, anecdotal evidence compiled by a Detroit professor suggests the figure may be twice as high, meaning city records may be incomplete and that thousands upon thousands of deceased people have been relocated from the city over the past 20 years.
Moving to Macomb
The practice appears to be most common among families like the Imbrunones: former east side Catholic Detroiters who moved to Macomb County years ago, miles away from their dearly departed. The cemetery that appears to lose the most is Mount Olivet, located in the heart of the wild east side, with about 100 disinterments a year. The destination of choice seems to be Resurrection Cemetery in Clinton Township, which is now home to 11 members of the Imbrunone family.
Although there is little information or statistical evidence regarding the phenomenon across the country, it is quite likely that Detroit and its surrounding communities lead the way, as it does in population loss among the living.
The reasons are two-fold, surmises Patrick Lynch, a Clawson funeral home director and executive board member of the National Funeral Directors Association. “People have to drive to a place that may take them through neighborhoods they otherwise may never go,” he said. “Their safety might be compromised. Whether that is real or perceived, it’s real to them.
“Second, families have left the city and they want to bring their family members closer to them,” Lynch said. “People have grown older and they simply don’t or can’t drive to the city anymore. They want to be near to those they love.”
Earlier this summer Peter Cracchiolo, 89, of Grosse Pointe Shores, removed his mother and sister from Mount Olivet and relocated them to Resurrection. Cracchiolo, too, grew up on the city’s east side and his family was part of the great white exodus. His explanation for moving his dearly departed was convenience, though the Detroit cemetery is closer to his home.
“I’ve already got relatives up there,” he said of the suburban cemetery. “I’ve got friends up there. It’s one-stop visiting this way. Me, I don’t forget my people. No sir.”
The children of Jack W. Noble Sr. moved their father in May to the Great Lakes National Cemetery in Holly from Gethsemane Cemetery in Detroit, citing the poor condition and upkeep of the cemetery, according to a permit filed with the city.
Dr. Stephen Vogel, dean of architecture at the University of Detroit Mercy, believes the out-migration of the dead from Detroit is undercounted.
He and his researchers conducted a study three years ago, interviewing the director of each of Detroit’s 28 cemeteries. According to that study, about 400 to 500 disinterments occur each year.
“What it says to me is that there is a deeply ingrained fear on the part of suburbanites in terms of their attitude toward the city and its hold is very powerful and very deep,” Vogel said. “When they’re afraid to cross Eight Mile to visit a cemetery, it tells you what we’re up against and any solutions are not going to be easy.”