Crossing The Line: Fence encroaches on Jewish graves in Chesterfield
When most of us envision a final resting place for our loved ones, we tend to think of well-kept grass and colorful flowers amid a tranquil cemetery — a pleasant place to come and spend some time.
We don’t picture what Norm Augustinus, bestselling writer of novels Cats and Dogs and Bedbadger, saw in May when he went to Union Cemetery with his niece Rosie Augustinus to visit the graves of his grandparents.
Norm found the graves of Steve and Bessie Melnyk, his Jewish grandparents, vandalized, their headstones on the ground. He looked around and realized the entire cemetery had been neglected.
Augustinus had gone to both grandparents’ burials when he was a kid and then didn’t visit Union Cemetery again for some time. “I was told by family members that the cemetery appeared to be abandoned from the late 1990s through 2012 or so,” Augustinus said.
“I went there, only to find that they were correct, the cemetery had turned into an unmaintained, overgrown jungle — you couldn’t even get to the grave or even find a headstone as it was completely buried in overgrowth as were many, many others. Booze bottles, beer cans, cigarette butts were everywhere; it had turned into a totally different cemetery.
“A neighbor there recently told me there were ongoing ‘out-of-control wild parties’ held in the cemetery weekly. Family members called and complained again and again, and eventually the city chopped everything down and it is what you see now.”
Augustinus, a Michigan native, graduated from Ferris State University. He moved to New York, then briefly lived on Peaks Island in Maine before returning to Michigan in May. He now resides in Shelby Township. He was recently nominated for the Carnegie Medal of Honor for pulling two children from a smoking overturned vehicle on I-75 last year.
“I went to work on my grandparents’ grave when the stone was off and lying on the fence,” he said. “Other headstones were lying in wrong places as well, and the weeds hadn’t been cut and the grass was really high. We did the bricks over; we removed the stone.”
It was too much work for one visit. He and Rosie left and came back the next week to continue working on the graves. As he was leaving the cemetery, he realized something disturbing: The fence near the entranceway seemed way too close to the headstones.
“As we kept coming and leaving, I realized that many of these people’s graves are on the other side of the fence. Literally, almost half their coffins are under a fence,” he said.
Augustinus stretched out in front of a headstone where the casket would be near the fence and used a tape measure to confirm his beliefs.
“A vault is 90 inches long,” he said. “After I measured, I knew the caskets were definitely resting under the fence.”
Ralph Zuckman, executive director of Clover Hill Park Cemetery in Birmingham, agrees. The JN emailed him a photo of Augustinus measuring the distance from the headstone past the fence. He replied: “A grave today is 8-feet 1-inch long by 42 inches wide. Even without a casket it would be at least 6-7 feet … it appears that the fence is across the grave.”
On June 1, Augustinus contacted the city of Chesterfield, owner of the cemetery, to see what could be done to remedy the situation. The original owner of Union Cemetery died 20 years ago, and it was handed over to the city of Chesterfield’s care.
That marked his first contact with Chesterfield Township Supervisor Mike Lovelock, who came to Union Cemetery with Don Coddington, superintendent of the Chesterfield Township Department of Public Works.
Both Augustinus and his niece were there as well. “Lovelock took out a flip phone and kept saying, ‘I want a survey ordered immediately. I don’t care how much it costs; I want it done tomorrow,’” Rosie said.
That was over two months ago, and a survey has never been conducted. Augustinus said he now believes Lovelock was “putting on a performance” and not actually speaking to anyone on that flip phone.
Since that day, the Augustinus family’s attempts to get in touch with Lovelock regarding the issue have been met with nothing but problems.
“He’ll either hang up on you or tell you a bunch of baloney,” Augustinus said. “Or he’ll refer you to Cindy Berry, a city clerk. She’ll say, ‘We’ll walk you out to the stakes and even organize a rebuilding committee,’” he said.
“I told her, ‘If that’s true, great. But the city has owned this cemetery for 20 years and you could’ve done something about it and didn’t.’ We’re still waiting for any kind of action.”
“There’s no story here,” said Lovelock when contacted by a JN editor. “The cemetery is fine the way it is.” Repeated calls to Lovelock for follow-up questions were ignored.
Chesterfield Township Trustee Christine Bell is the only city official cooperating with Augustinus, agreeing with him that gravesites extend on the other side of the fence.
In an email sent from Bell to Augustinus on July 18, she wrote, “When I went to the cemetery today to see for myself what the situation is, I found their [Augustinus’ grandparents] gravesites … It does look to me as though the fence crosses over several graves.”
Bell also admitted in the email that she had no idea how the problem originated and was unsure of how to solve it. She said she would speak with Lovelock about it to determine what his plan was to resolve the issue. She also urged Augustinus to attend a city planning commission meeting and plead his case.
“I went to the city planning commission and they blew us off and said they couldn’t do anything to help,” Augustinus said. “I wrote to Brian DeMuynck, another trustee, and he couldn’t help and just forwarded me to Lovelock again.”
Dealing With Disrespect
There are about a dozen Jewish people buried in Union Cemetery. “I feel what’s going on is an attack on the Jewish faith and the Jewish people,” said Augustinus, who is a member of Temple Kol Ami in West Bloomfield and had his bar mitzvah at the former Beth Moses Synagogue in Detroit. “It’s bizarre, a slap in the face of Judaism and to all the people buried here.”
For two months, Augustinus said he has heard nothing but lies. “This has kept me up at night,” he said.
He’s also dealt with what he felt was serious danger. On June 4, while he was working on his grandparents’ graves, Augustinus says a man who lived next to the cemetery came to the fence with a gun in his belt insinuating that he would use it if he had to. He said, “I heard about you. No one is taking my property from me,” according to Augustinus.
But whoever built the fence took the property away from the people who bought those gravesites and are now resting, in part, in the yard of the man, Augustinus added. “These people paid for these plots. It’s not right.”
Augustinus called the police during the incident, and police told the man with the gun to go back in his house. No charges were filed.
For two months now, Augustinus has complained to officials and tried to get something done. “The city came out after about a month and a half, and they raised the fence and somehow thought that would fix everything,” Augustinus said. “They think that by raising the fence, the person won’t mind!”
Augustinus is still trying to get a survey done as well as expose the injustice. “If they fixed it right away and took the proper action, I would be completely content,” he said.
Instead, he said, Lovelock and the city of Chesterfield have ignored him and not taken any action. Augustinus said he will not stop until changes are made and those resting at Union Cemetery, including his grandparents, are treated with respect.
By Danny Schwartz, JN Intern