Cemeteries are weird places. We bury our dead with great ceremony at considerable cost, visit their gravesite for a year or two, and then forget about it. In the meantime, huge chunks of parklike property sits empty, giving every motorist and pedestrian that passes by a serious case of the willies.
It wasn’t always that way. We used to be more comfortable with death. In 1900, about 1 in every 10 babies died within a year. It was fashionable to take a Sunday stroll to the mausoleum, maybe taking a detour to carouse on the crematorium grounds as black, acrid smoke from the rendering plants blew over the horizon in a Gothic tableau.
Woodlawn Cemetery on Woodward hearkens back to those halcyon days of putrefaction-tinged fun. It was opened in 1898 on what was then the outskirts of the Detroit area, in an unincorporated corner of Greenfield Township. The idea being, of course, that the city would never, ever sprawl that far. Rumors that Detroit had crushed the old tombstones near downtown on Jefferson and used the stones in new construction projects were still fresh in people’s minds, and distance was perceived as eternal safety.
If only they’d known they were living in the future Motor City. You ain’t safe nowhere, bro.
For a time, though, Woodlawn Cemetery was the cemetery to take your last nap at. The cemetery put the ridiculously conscientious Frank Eurich in charge – he spent his spare time writing about the virtues of granite mausoleums, and was a founding member of the droll-sounding but probably secretly ribald Association of American Cemetery Superintendents. With the help of civil engineer Mason L. Brown, Eurich transformed an unassuming landscape into a gently undulating wooded retreat, complete with a small pond named Willow Lake. He was, after all, a horticulturist first and foremost.
That’s what he did. Woodlawn was like a suburb for the dead.
By the 1910s, auto barons and other wealthy industrialists from across the city were clamoring to secure a spot inside Woodlawn’s deceptively modest entrance gate. The less notable figures, low-level executives and down on their luck lumber aristocrats, engaged in a seemingly endless pissing contest to see who really had the biggest obelisk. Those at the top took up the more noble pursuit of constructing grand, classically-inspired mausoleums, from the Fords to the Hudsons.
None, however, is more impressive than John and Horace Dodge’s mausoleum, near the middle of the cemetery on one of its main drives. If they had their way, no one in Detroit was going to forget their legendary contributions to the automotive industry, from supplying the parts for the first Model Ts to producing its stiffest competition with the Model 30.
The Dodge brothers sought out another dynamic duo, the Toledo-based Lloyd Brothers, to build their final resting place. Built in 1915 for $35,000 and made almost entirely of granite, the Dodge mausoleum sported typical Egyptian temple motifs, largely unremarkable except for one striking addition: two male sphinxes guarding the entrance. The unmistakable Midwestern beer bellies on the sphinxes added to the cognitive dissonance, a subtle touch of humor by the same hard-drinking brothers that had once had beers delivered daily to workers in Dodge’s main forgery. DODGE, written above the bronze door in front in the same font reserved for Dodge car ads, brought the message home.
Frank Winfield Woolworth, proprietor of New York’s legendary Woolworth chain, was so impressed with the Dodge’s mausoleum that he had a knockoff made for himself in Bronx’s celebrated Woodlawn Cemetery (yeah, it was trend – even Toledo had one). That was in 1920, the same year the Dodge brothers passed away. John Dodge died of pneumonia in January, 1915, causing a bereaved Horace to essentially drink himself to death by the end of the year. The two funerals, at the same mausoleum with the same friends and family in attendance, were somber, surreal affairs.
It was a tragic sequence of events for what would become an increasingly tragic family. Today, you couldn’t even find one notable remaining Dodge descendant if you tried. The incredible gobs of money collected by the business savvy Dodge brothers was squandered on gigolo husbands and gold digging wives in just a few generations. Horace Dodge, Jr.’s reason for divorcing his fifth wife, Gregg Sherwood, summed up the family’s recklessness: “I can’t afford the woman.”
Sherwood allegedly spent over $300,000 a year on clothing and jewelry in early 1960s money. Adjusted for inflation, that’s over $2 million.
Despite such extravagances, the Dodges remain a palpable force in Michigan, from the various parks the family donated to the state to Oakland University, established using money and property donated by Matilda Dodge, John’s widow. I like to think the sphinxes at the mausoleum sleep snug at night, secure in that knowledge that the Dodge legacy is forever preserved.