Historic Elmwood Cemetery is the oldest continuously operating, non-denominational cemetery in Michigan. The cemetery was established in 1846 and incorporated in 1849 as a non-profit corporation by an act of the Michigan Legislature. Founded by some of early Detroit’s leading citizens, Elmwood quickly expanded from its original 42 acres to its current size of 86 acres and became the final resting-place of tycoon and laborer alike.
History of Elmwood Cemetery
Elmwood Cemetery began its history in the Spring of 1846 when some of Detroit’s leading citizens conceived the idea of establishing a cemetery in the suburbs of the city. For the sum of $1,850 they purchased forty-two acres from what was originally the George Hunt Farm in the township of Hamtramck and renamed the property Elmwood Cemetery. In 1849, the cemetery was incorporated as a non-profit organization and in 1883, an endowment fund was created for the perpetual care of the cemetery and individual lots. Over the years, additional land was purchased from the Hunt Farm and neighboring farm of D.C. Whitwood so that today the cemetery consists of approximately eighty-six acres.
Historic Remembrance & Memorialization
Steeped in history, Elmwood is the oldest non-denominational cemetery in Michigan. It contains the memorials of many famous men and women who have served their country faithfully in times of peace and war. A special lot is designated for those who fought in the Civil War and is one of the few places in the United States where the flag is flown continuously as a memorial to those patriots.
Elmwood’s history is also represented by many distinguished citizens who are memorialized in the park including, W.A. Burt, the inventor of the Equatorial sextant and solar compass and Margaret Mather, the great Shakespearean actress of the nineteenth century. Other notables include governors, mayors, judges, ministers, lawyers, doctors, prominent businessmen and abolitionists. George DeBaptiste, Dr. Joseph Ferguson and Dr. William Lambert all represent the abolitionist movement having worked faithfully for their cause with leaders such as the well-known ex-slave and orator Frederick Douglas. Visit our Biographies for our featured Biography of the Month and to read more about the many famous notables who are buried at Elmwood Cemetery.
Other noteworthy persons memorialized at Elmwood include Lewis Cass, Michigan’s Territorial Governor; Douglass Houghton, Michigan’s first State Geologist; Eber Brock Ward, Michigan industrialist and Michigan's first millionaire; and General Philip St. George Cook who led the Mormon Battalion two thousand miles to Los Angeles in 1846, raising the flag at Fort Tucson along the way.
Many other heroes from many wars, dating back to the early fighting with the English and Indians and including veterans of all the wars and fighting since, have found a resting-place at Elmwood. From privates to generals, all ranks and honors are remembered at Elmwood. History books state that Memorial Day, originally designated as Decoration Day, was first celebrated in Detroit in 1869. However, Detroit’s first observance of the holiday actually occurred one year earlier on May 30, 1868 at Elmwood Cemetery. Quickly organized on three days' notice, the simple yet meaningful event is missed by many Historians in their recounting of history. The ceremony took place opposite the entrance with national flags and a stuffed eagle forming the background to the speakers and the Fort Wayne band.
Old World Design
The design of the cemetery, inspired by Mount Auburn in Cambridge, Mass., was created in 1890 when prominent landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmsted, was brought in to enhance the picturesque cemetery and design improvements into the layout of the park. Thanks to his work, Elmwood is now graced by majestic groves of trees and lush vegetation that takes advantage of the natural beauty and history of the land.
Between the rolling green hills and through the valley, runs a creek that defines the setting and emphasizes the historical significance of Elmwood Cemetery. Originally “Parents Creek,” it was named in 1707 for a gunsmith appearing on the records of St. Anne’s Church. On July 31, 1763, in an incident during the Pontiac uprising against the British, the creek was renamed Bloody Run after the Indian massacre of Captain Dalzell and his men. A plaque memorializes this event and the trustees of Elmwood have preserved this historic section as part of the natural beauty and history of the cemetery. Elmwood has the only section of Bloody Run Creek in Detroit that is open and visible.
Enhancing the historic feel of the park are many beautiful buildings designed in an old-world style, including the exquisite chapel built in 1856 of quarried limestone and office building built in 1870. In the late 1900s, after fire destroyed the chapel and several additions were added to the office, both buildings were extensively restored. Take a TOUR of the grounds to see and learn more about the many monuments and buildings that grace Elmwood Cemetery.
History of Elmwood Foundation
With continued foresight, the Trustees of Elmwood Cemetery identified the need to grow awareness of Elmwood Cemetery and to adopt a structure that would allow all organizations interested in restoring historic places and sharing history with others to aid in its support. In 2005 the HIstoric Elmwood Foundation was incorporated as a 501(c)(3) corporation. This complemented the not-for-profit cemetery and enabled the HIstoric Elmwood Foundation to pursue donations from other foundations, corporate and private, as well as personal donations. The trustees chose a Board of Directors. Cemetery Trustee Miss Terry Book, a descendant of an original cemetery trustee, accepted the charge to guide and develop the Foundation. Directors were chosen for the Board for their commitment to Elmwood, Detroit and history.
The Foundation Board has revitalized community events at Elmwood with its robust tour program, Veterans' Day and Memorial Day celebrations. Also, it has brought new programs to Elmwood with the annual tree lighting program which honors the year's deceased, Arbor Day festivities, Donor Receptions, Civil War dedication, poetry readings, photography classes, picnics next to the pond. Through these programs, thousands have come to Elmwood to experience and enjoy the grounds.
The Board has increased its outreach to the community and sought grants to make Elmwood widely accessible. We have added benches for visitors and placed them throughout the cemetery along our most highly visited areas, and a transportation vehicle for the disabled to use while on tours, or visiting sites with our staff.
The Board of Directors works closely with the Trustee of Elmwood Cemetery as they select restoration projects. These have included the gatehouse, chapel, pond, gardens, arboretum and roadway. Tremendous progress has been made in restoring the treasure that is Elmwood Cemetery.