On the north side of Detroit is a unique cemetery.
Beth Olem, a historic Jewish cemetery, is located in the middle of a General Motors plant. The cemetery opened in the mid-1800s, and hosted funerals for hundreds of Jewish immigrants. At that time Beth Olem was in the countryside outside the city. But Detroit blossomed during the 1950s and 1960s, and the city grew. “Large swaths of land began being bought up to house sprawling manufacturing complexes,” reads an article about Beth Olem in Atlas Obscura. “Soon the once remote Beth Olem was in the way of industrial progress.”
As an environmental science journalist, this is a progression I am familiar with. The maw of industry moves across the earth, crunching over everything in its path. The land, the people, and the cemetery too. I have seen the process time and again in my reporting. From the coalfields of southern West Virginia to the petrochemical factory-studded shores of the lower Mississippi River, in Louisiana.
Digital Dying has examined what happens when the small town cemetery meets the modern world situation of more cremations and less space. That is, the small town cemetery disappears. “In the West Taghkanic Cemetery, like many small cemeteries across the country, upkeep is paid for by new burials,” we reported in our August post: The Looming Death of the Small Town American Cemetery. Without new burials, small-town cemeteries have fallen into disrepair, bones are literally sticking out of the ground, and the quaint churches that adorn many cemeteries have been shuttered.
And Digital Dying has taken a look at the cemeteries of rural Mississippi, which in many cases have not just been abandoned, they have been paved and plowed right into oblivion. That is, until an unlikely guitar salesman from New Jersey teamed up with some of the biggest names in Rock n’ Roll—Bonnie Raitt, John Fogerty, Eric Clapton—to save a string of African American churches from industrial agriculture operations. “Small black churches, now lost in a sea of row crops, get sold and hauled off in trucks, or are burnt to the ground,” we reported. “Suddenly the tombs are flanked by soybeans and forgotten.” But our New Jersey guitar salesman and his group, the Mount Zion Memorial Fund have been able to save many cemeteries from this sort of destruction.
The lesson here is that if you have a hero, a willing fighter on the ground, then you can maybe save a cemetery from big industry. But not every cemetery has a hero. And no hero lives forever. Heroes are people, they are human beings, they die too. When the hero dies, what then? In our day and age corporations have deeper pockets, and they live longer, and they can fight harder. And they often have the same rights as people. So, what happens when big industry comes into contact with a cemetery?
Here, Beth Olem serves as a good example. The historic Jewish cemetery was founded by Congregants of Shaarey Zedek in the early 1860s but is now locked within the walls of a GM plant. We can call it, the Donut Effect. That is, industry surrounds the cemetery, which ends up being a little morsel in the middle of a vast plot of industry. During the 1980s and 1990s, an intense and destructive process known as Mountaintop Removal Mining proliferated across the coalfields of southern West Virginia. Whereas before coal was mined by human beings who worked thin strips at the surface or vast networks of underground tunnels, now massive machines many stories high literally ate away at the mountain itself, chewing through the scree of rock in search of coal. The process leveled the mountain, as well as the forest that once covered it, and in many cases, the local cemeteries were leveled too.
Up any West Virginia valley or holler you will find a community of people, and further up the mountain, you will often find a hillside or meadow where these residents once buried their loved ones. Environmental advocates say that more than 500 mountains have been flattened by mountaintop removal across southern Appalachia. It is unknown just how many backwoods family cemeteries have been destroyed in this process, but it is fair to say that wherever there were people living in the backwoods of rural West Virginia, there were people dying in the backwoods, which means there were cemeteries.
Some residents stood up to fight the incursion. These are the heroes. Larry Gibson is one of them. “An unlikely activist who fought West Virginia’s powerful coal interests to preserve a mountain that had been his family’s home for generations,” wrote the Washington Post. One part of that fight meant defending his backwoods family cemetery. “Mr. Gibson said he turned down offers worth millions of dollars for his family’s ancestral land on Kayford. Instead, he set up a trust to preserve the property, including a family cemetery with gravestones dating to the 18th century,” reported the Washington Post article. “Why not let it go?” he said to a Virginia Tech class in 2004. “Because in that cemetery up there are buried members of my family as far back as the 1700s.” Earlier this year I visited Gibson’s grave with another West Virginia environmental activist named Paula Jean Swearengin for an article I wrote with Rolling Stone magazine. The man who saved the cemetery now has his own separate plot, right beside his wife and dog.
A similar fight occurred in a small community in southern Louisiana called Revilletown, where there existed a cemetery that dated back to slavery days. “My ancestors, former slaves, bought the property nine years after the Thirteenth Amendment outlawed slavery in 1865,” local resident Janice Dickerson told the Louisiana Weekly. “No one was giving away property then and it had to be purchased. Before that, slaves were buried on plantations.” But in 1987, Georgia Gulf Corporation, an Atlanta based company that makes plastics and paper products, bought out the residents and leveled the town. Prior to that, the plant had been polluting the town, an issue residents complained about regularly. Georgia Gulf ate the town but the Revilletown cemetery is still there, now surrounded by Georgia Gulf’s industrial operation. To visit, residents need to obtain permission from the company.
Back inside the walls of Beth Olem, the 365-acre GM plant hums away, producing Chevrolets, Buicks and Cadillacs. The cemetery is open to the public twice a year for a total of six hours: 10 a.m. – 1 p.m. on the Sundays before Rosh Hashanah and Passover. Although special tours appear to be possible too. “I joined fellow delegates of JCANA [Jewish Cemeteries of North America], and had the privilege of a private tour of Beth Olem Cemetery on May 17th, 1016,” wrote William Draimin, Vice Chair of Jewish Cemeteries of North America. “It’s continued presence is a tribute to the efforts of the Jewish and general community of Detroit , Shaarey Zedek and General Motors to preserve Jewish Heritage in Michigan.”
But Jewish heritage in Michigan, as is the case with heritage in West Virginia, Louisiana and many other parts of America, is now locked within the gates of industry.