Clover Hill Cemetery tombstones

Solemn and beautiful, Clover Hill Park Cemetery marks its 100th anniversary.

A beautiful quiet fills everything here.

Small, soft hills and a nature area where you may see a fox or deer, even in the middle of winter. Bright flowers in spring. More than 300 trees whose leaves spill, as if in a dance, throughout autumn. Warm light that comes by and covers your shoulders on a summer evening.

Clover Hill Cemetery Simons headstone.Clover Hill Park Cemetery is the final resting place of Metro Detroit’s most prominent Jewish figures, including Max Fisher, William “Bill” Davidson, David Hermelin and Mandell “Bill” Berman, and some of its greatest tragedies, like Rabbi Morris Adler and the man who killed him, Richard Wishnetsky, and Florence Stern, whose husband, Mark Unger, was convicted of her murder in 2006.

Celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, Clover Hill Park Cemetery was established by Congregation Shaarey Zedek and “offers families the perfect opportunity to respectfully lay their loved ones to rest, as well as a serene setting in which to fondly recall cherished memories,” says Shaarey Zedek’s Rabbi Aaron Starr. “With a commitment to Jewish tradition and openness to today’s modern Jewish family, Clover Hill Park Cemetery takes seriously the mitzvah (sacred obligation) of kavod hamet (honoring the deceased).”

Clover Hill is “excellently situated for the purpose to which it is to be dedicated,” reads the cemetery’s first book of rules and regulations. “It is within walking distance from Woodward Ave., conveniently accessible over good thoroughfares and lines of travel, and is in the midst of a most beautiful suburban section.”

That suburban section was Troy Township (today Birmingham), an area to which the Jewish community was believed to be moving. Clover Hill Park Cemetery was designed with space for 26,000 graves, 14,500 of which already have been occupied and another 5,000 of which have been sold.

Some of these gravestones have birthdates that date from the mid- to late-1800s.
Some of these gravestones have birthdates that date from the mid- to late-1800s.

The first cemetery board was chaired by David S. Zemon and included Joseph Wetsman, William Friedman, David R. Stocker, Jacob Nathan and Benjamin B. Jacob. It was a board like few others because, in a tradition that continues to this day, Shaarey Zedek owns the cemetery, but Clover Hill is entirely managed by its board of directors.

The first burial was on July 10, 1918. His name was Adolph Blumberg. He was married, lived in Detroit and he died of chronic vascular heart disease. His age was 60, and his brother Morris purchased his lot.

“When you come here it’s like walking into a
synagogue. Every grave here is treated with respect. Dignity is of utmost importance.”
Ralph Zuckman, cemetery director

Since then, the cemetery has seen thousands of burials and faced the challenges of the times. According to its rules, Clover Hill “shall be operated in accordance with the laws of the Jewish faith,” which does not allow cremation, embalmment, burial in a mausoleum or intermarriage. Yet accommodations are made for all of these.

While no one may purchase, in advance, a spot for his ashes, “cremains” (as they are known by funeral directors) are allowed at Clover Hill. Mausoleums initially were included, and a few exist to this day, though Rabbi Abraham M. Hershman (head of Shaarey Zedek from 1907-1946) disallowed them. A few embalmed (as required by civil law) bodies have been laid to rest at Clover Hill, as have dead buried in their finery and in expensive caskets (Halachah — Jewish law — calls for a plain shroud and a simple wooden coffin). Clover Hill also has a “blended family” section for those who have intermarried.

The ways of death have changed over time as well.

In 1918, the nation was in the midst of an influenza pandemic, the most-deadly single event in history, ending more lives than WWI. While life expectancy is much longer 100 years later, Clover Hill has become the final resting place for those dying in another kind of tragedy: In the past few years, six young people who overdosed on drugs have been buried here.

Read more about addiction in No One Is Immune.

Ralph Zuckman, Clover Hill Park Cemetery director, in the Davidson/Hermelin Chapel.
Ralph Zuckman, Clover Hill Park Cemetery director, in the Davidson/Hermelin Chapel.

The cemetery’s director Ralph Zuckman, who speaks with reverence about his work, can locate virtually any grave in an instant and knows many true stories, like this one:

An elderly woman had died; she had loved walking and took walks every time she could. The hearse going to her funeral refused to start, so the family walked with her casket to the cemetery. Afterward, the hearse immediately started. It was, the family said, “as though Grandma was making sure everyone took that last walk with her.”

Vintage Chapel

One of the most intriguing areas of Clover Hill is its Davidson/Hermelin Chapel, Metro Detroit’s oldest building still in use for Jewish services.

The exterior of the Davidson/Hermelin Chapel.
The exterior of the Davidson/Hermelin Chapel.

Fitted with the original stained-glass windows, the chapel seats 150 and features a podium at front with two large candelabras from the 1930s, along with heavy, but delicate, white lamps that hang from the ceiling.

Stepping inside the chapel is like walking into the past. There is that familiar vintage smell; the knowledge that so many have been here to say goodbye; secrets in every corner.

Come, take a look.

Begin at the bottom. Would you even notice the carpet you step on as you enter the chapel? Probably not, but it covers something quite unusual. Underneath is an intricate tile floor with a pattern of a popular 1920s Indian symbol; it closely resembles the swastika.

Way above the front door look carefully and you’ll see a tiny hole, the perfect size for one eye to view everything below. Behind that hole is what was once an apartment for the shomer, or guard, who must watch the body until the time of burial. (Today, funeral homes supervise preparations and care of the body until burial, so there is no need for a shomer at the chapel.) To access the room, you must walk up a narrow set of stairs. Open the wooden door and you arrive at an area, small and tidy, with a floor made of thin, wooden slats. Two antique chairs, with red fabric on the seats and backs, and ornate carvings in the arm rests and legs, are still here.

Downstairs again and to the right of the podium is an older office, complete with a desk that has a spot just for a typewriter. On the wall is a picture of what appears to be a long stretch of swamp, later developed into the cemetery’s charming pond.

The old tahara room in the basement of the chapel, where preparation of the body took place. Now this happens in funeral homes.
The old tahara room in the basement of the chapel, where preparation of the body took place. Now this happens in funeral homes.

On the left facing the podium is another door, this one leading to the basement. Watch your step as you go down, then pause at a room where the floor shows tiny white tiles popular in the early 20th century. Notice a window on your left; this is where, so many years ago, each body was brought into the building, gently carried and taken into the room at right. In this next room, you’ll see a long table and a sink, two opaque windows and a concrete floor. This is where tahara, preparation of the body, took place.

Continue down the hall to a large room that has served various purposes, from housing caskets to being a lunchroom in the 1930s to a place for storage. The original door of the chapel is here, as is the first table, made of marble, used for tahara.

“We’re very much preservationists,” Zuckman says. He is careful about showing respect for everything here, being a “keeper of history,” making certain all is in order. “I have such affection for the cemetery that I want to make sure everything is done properly.”

Outside, the geese fly by, their sharp cries the only thing to break the deep stillness of this basement.

Respecting The Space

Rabbi Irwin Groner’s headstone
Rabbi Irwin Groner’s headstone

Ralph Zuckman had long been interested in cemeteries, and he had an uncle who supervised the Beth Yehudah Cemetery, when he came to Clover Hill 15 years ago. A co-founder of the Jewish Cemetery Association of North America and its first chair, as well as president of the Michigan Cemetery Association, he views his role as “steering people through very difficult times. We’re just here to try to help.”

“Everyone grieves differently,” Zuckman notes, and he has pretty much seen it all. Like the High Holiday liturgy that cites how God decides who should die by water and who by fire, who by famine and who by thirst, the way people respond to death also is a kind of poem. Zuckman has seen mourners who, despite terrible injustices, find compassion, and those whose hardness never waivers; those who remain stoic and those who are “tormented by death.”

Clover Hill is both beautiful and solemn, a place Zuckman calls “holy ground, and when you come here it’s like walking into a synagogue. Every grave here is treated with respect. Dignity is of utmost importance.”

Rabbi Morris Adler’s headstone
Rabbi Morris Adler’s headstone

The cemetery has been designed in such a way that there is no view of unending headstones that all look alike. Instead, some stones face a bit to the left or to the right. There are graves near a pond or in the nature section. Some headstones are flat and some stand high.

Many of Clover Hill’s most famous figures are at the front, and some have impressive family sections that are difficult to miss. Max Fisher is here, as is Eugene Applebaum and A. Alfred Taubman. Rabbi Adler’s headstone looks like an open book, and former Shaarey Zedek Rabbi Irwin Groner’s grave is topped by a large black star. Another, older section is home to some of the men who helped establish the cemetery and early members of Shaarey Zedek: Isaac Saulson, who started the Chevra Kadishah (burial society), Cantor Abraham Minkowsky, sexton Meyer Smith and D.W.

Simon, Detroit’s first Jewish city councilman.

Davidson-Saulson headstone
Davidson-Saulson headstone

In another area is Franklin Adell, whose headstone is a tall, black obelisk; he was the co-founder, with his son, of The Word, the largest African-American religious network in the world. Officiators at his funeral included Rabbi Harold Loss, Cantor Harold Orbach, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Aretha Franklin. Not too far down from Adell is where Bill Davidson lies buried. Though extraordinary in life, he opted for a modest headstone. Davidson’s one request, Zuckman says, was to be buried near his parents.

When the day ends, the cemetery entryway is closed and the dead lie together behind the large fence that encloses and protects them. The streets empty of traffic; lights go off in homes and in businesses. Dark descends, and the wind sings its quiet song.

David Hermelin’s gravestone
David Hermelin’s gravestone

“Ever since the days of Abraham and Sarah, the Jewish people have ensured that their loved ones are properly taken care of in death as in life,” Rabbi Starr says. “By choosing Clover Hill Park Cemetery, one continues in that loving tradition that dates all the way back to the Torah itself. May those who have entered the gateway of the grave be granted peace and rest in life eternal and may we — through righteous living and charitable deeds — do all that we can to honor their memories in the land of the living.”

A number of events are being planned in celebration of the cemetery’s 100th anniversary, beginning Saturday, April 7, when Congregation Shaarey Zedek will hold a commemorative service at 9 a.m., followed by a special Yizkor service at 11 a.m. The public is invited. Additional programs will include a history walk, a remembrance day to be held in the fall and a video that tells the history of Clover Hill Park Cemetery.

Elizabeth Applebaum Special to the Jewish News
Photos by Anthony Lanzilote

Read about the multi-generational families who comfort those who grieve.