Flight of the dead: Suburban families move loved ones from Detroit cemeteries

Flight of the dead: Suburban families move loved ones from Detroit cemeteries


Tuesday, August 12, 2008


Charlie LeDuff / The Detroit News

CLINTON TOWNSHIP– 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."

If that promise holds true, then it would be, in a way, the Imbrunones’ second resurrection. As it happens, the couple was buried nearly 50 years ago in Detroit’s Mount Olivet Cemetery on the city’s east side. Then their grandchildren decided to disinter them, move them to the leafier suburbs and bury them again this particular morning.

"He’d complain, ‘Why did you spend the money?’ " said Francesco’s granddaughter, Gerry Seip. "My grandmother? She’d just cry."

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."

Such is the case with the Imbrunone clan, whose patriarch Francesco came from Sicily to America in the hull of a ship in 1902 and made his new life in Detroit. He was an anonymous man, a laborer who lived in boarding houses and swept factory floors. He would return to Italy occasionally until his wife Francesca demanded that he bring her and their children to the United States in 1937.

Three generations of the Imbrunones made a home on the east side of Detroit near Harper and Gratiot where the trolley cars turned around, a place the Italians called Caccalupo. It was nine people in a first floor flat.

Francesco was a simple man, who drank only wine and is said to have washed his face with his mouth closed so that no water would touch his palate. His wife Francesca never learned English, but taught her granddaughters Italian. They attended Mass together and the family sold vegetables at Eastern Market, saved its money, and bought property in 1960 in St. Clair Shores. Francesco died a few months before the family left the city. He died happy, by all accounts. He went to nap with a belly-full of pasta and never awoke.

"He knew," said his granddaughter, Fran Palazzolo, 61. "He couldn’t go. He didn’t want to leave Detroit. But I guess he finally had to."


For fear, convenience

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."

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."

Which is not to say that cemeteries like Mount Olivet are emptying out. In fact, 1,200 burials a year are conducted at Mount Olivet since the cemetery made the decision 10 years ago to allow non-Catholics to enter, said Mark Gracely, the cemetery’s director. "We’ve even had people mail us cremated remains from Florida," he said.

As for the Imbrunones, their family took the headstones with them and the cost of the old plot was applied toward the new plot.

In the meantime, the old east side home of the family has been razed; leaving no physical memory of the humble lives lived by Francesco and Francesca Imbrunone.

  1. mike

    “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.”

    Suburbanites know that Detroit is out of control. The problem is the crime. Fear of that crime is how rational people respond to an out of control situation. The “solutions” are to put the criminals out of buisiness.

  2. Chance

    The fear of crime is great among people. It is also the quality of life haven deteriorated in those black areas to the point that even many blacks want to move. Detroit is out of control to some degree.

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