Story by Andrea Grimaldi
Photos by Bernie LaFramboise
We are open to the public. We invite anyone to visit and walk around, walk their dogs,” Machpelah groundskeeper Paul Saville explained, looking around the park in his backyard. On this quiet fall day, the grounds crew worked on blowing away leaves and tending to the flowerbeds, as the sun came through the branches of the countless trees. And, had we been anywhere besides one of the oldest cemeteries in Metro Detroit, I would have wondered how no one took him up on his offer.
To Paul, a calming walk around the cemetery is nothing new. He has worked maintaining the cemetery since 1978 in what started as a summer job. By the mid-‘80s, he had worked his way to head groundskeeper and moved into the house on the property, hidden behind a garage of maintenance machines. Machpelah is one of the last cemeteries in America that has a groundskeeper living on the property, and the Saville family treats it with the care and pride of home.
Machpelah Cemetery is a gorgeous park, regardless if tombstones scare you or not. The history and depth in Machpelah Cemetery is worth a long, winding walk. The Jewish cemetery is located on Woodward, just south of Marshall road, across from a car dealership and surrounded by businesses. Despite the busy area, the cemetery is a very peaceful place, 24 acres of immaculate landscaping backed by the David Oppenheim Memorial park. The cemetery has 9000 garden beds and circling walking trails. Machpelah has won an America in Bloom award, as well as a Ferndale Beautification award, with good reason. There is a year-round crew that keeps Machpelah beautiful. Weeding and garden maintenance is a nonstop task, starting at one end of the park and restarting as soon as they reach the other. The crew also must level out between 300 and 500 graves and tombstones a year. Along with the tradition of having a groundskeeper on the property, Machpelah is also one of few cemeteries that hand digs each grave.
The Machpelah cemetery is integral to Detroit history. The first house on Woodward Avenue stood where the cemetery is now, when Woodward was a dirt trail. The two-bedroom house was on the Granger farm property, and the occupants paid $7 dollars per month for rent.
Machpelah has a very large veterans section. Alfred Levitt, a member of the Flying Tigers in World War II, is in internment here. A Congressional Medal of Honor awardee is also buried here. Members of the Purple Gang, Detroit’s Jewish mafia and Al Capone’s liquor supplier during the prohibition, rest here as well. According to rumors, one of Al Capone’s girlfriends is here, as well as a previous mayor of Las Vegas. Gilda Radner’s parents are here in a family plot. “Babeland” – a section of early 1900’s children – is the eeriest of them all.
While all internment records are available on the Machpelah website, the staff is also available to help with genealogy questions. The employees of the cemetery are very well-educated on the history of the cemetery and are happy to show guests around the graves. The main administration building has a chapel and a family room for guests. The guest gathering room has shelves of the interesting things found while digging; old medicine bottles, beer and soda bottles, broken glasses, rusted out horse shoes. A Congressional Medal of Honor from the Civil War was also found on the grounds.
The staff is accommodating to guests of Machpelah there out of both necessity and curiosity. Walk a mile somewhere you never thought you would, and walk away more intrigued because of it.