I love Michigan. Despite the problems its having economically I think it’s a great state and despite the fact that Detroit is suffering from too many problems to count I have a bit of a soft spot for it after my years working as a Michigan Bell lineman in the city in my early twenties. Growing up here one of the topics I can remember hearing people talk about from time to time was the phenomena of White Flight. Basically it’s where the whites that once made up the majority in Detroit fled to the suburbs increasing segregation and the number of people below the poverty line in the city. The phenomena is not unique to Detroit, but unlike some other major cities where whites are returning to the city they once fled, Detroit doesn’t seem to be following that trend.
What’s even more telling about Detroit’s problem, though, is that it appears the dead are fleeing as well:
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.
I have to admit that I don’t have a lot of room for the dead in my life. As far as I know I’ve never been to my biological father’s grave site. It doesn’t help that it’s someplace in North Carolina and I don’t have a clue as to where, but even if I did I can’t say that I’d ever stop by to see it. My maternal grandparents are buried in West Branch, Michigan and I’ve not been back to their graves since their funerals. The same goes for my Uncle Bob (Grayling, Michigan) and Uncle Gene (Dryden, Michigan I think). Even my best friend Bill Owen has yet to have me visit his grave in Auburn Hills, Michigan. Again, none of those are particularly close to where I’m currently living, but I could make the trip if I wanted to. When my mother passes away or my stepfather I can’t say with any certainty that I’ll ever visit their graves either.
I’ve always felt a little odd about that because I know a few people who make pilgrimages to the graves of loved ones on a regular basis. I think part of it is probably because I don’t believe in an afterlife and even if I did I’m not sure going to a grave would be necessary to talk to whichever deceased person I wanted to talk to. Not being a believer I’m not real clear on how all that stuff is supposed to work, but you see scenes in movies all the time where someone visits a dead person’s grave and talks to them about something or other as if the grave was some sort of metaphysical phone or something. I often wonder if there’s something wrong with me that I don’t feel the need to go see where someone I love is buried. And now that I think about it I realize I’m not sure if my maternal grandparents were buried or cremated. How sad is that?
The point being that I can’t begin to understand why someone would feel the need to dig up dead grandparents who have been in the same plot of ground for over 50 years (as is the case in the news item I linked to) just to relocate them to the suburbs. The article offers two possible explanations:
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.”
[…] The granddaughters, being the next of kin, elected to pay the approximately $5,000 to move their grandparents to Macomb County because they wanted to be closer to them. “In our family you don’t forget about your people,” Palazzolo said. “I hope that’s human. It’s at least Italian.”
Love. That was one part of the decision. There is another.
“To tell you the truth, yes, it’s fear,” Palazzolo said. “Have you been to Detroit? I pray the car doesn’t break down. I cringe when I drive down Gratiot. I’m worried for my life. There’s a lot of bad people in Detroit. But to tell you the truth, there’s a lot of bad people out here. But at least we’re closer this way.”
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.”
I still don’t understand. I haven’t forgotten my grandparents, uncles, or my best friend despite them being dead for quite some time now, but I’ve never felt the need to drive to their graves for a visit. Nor, for that matter, would I feel any better if they were closer to where I lived. What I do understand is the Professor’s explanation:
“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.”
When I was a kid stories of how dangerous Detroit was were discussed at a whisper usually reserved for tales of the Bogeyman and, in many ways, that’s exactly what Detroit was to us middle class white kids. Even where I grew up in Pontiac, which in many ways wasn’t all that different from Detroit, the tales of murder and depravity in the city were near legendary. I can clearly recall, after hearing one particularly horrible story at the tender age of 8 of how the blacks would murder any white person they caught in Detroit after midnight, that I swore to myself I’d never set foot in the city out of fear for my life (which is ironic because I was literally born in Detroit). It was a matter of bragging rights to be a white kid who claimed to have spent any amount of time in Detroit. Racism clearly played a role in the stories and it still does today.
Given that Bogeyman-like hold Detroit has over so many people in the suburbs I can understand how they’d feel uncomfortable having to drive into the city to visit a grave site. But I don’t understand the need to visit grave sites in the first place. I can also see the troubling sign that the Dead Flight represents and how it shows Detroit still has a long way to go before it’ll come close to its former glory.