In some ways, this is the story of all cemeteries in Detroit: Some people hiked out to the country and bought the land, thinking it would be far, far away, forever and ever. Dust to dust. But what we imagined about the future wasn’t imaginative enough, and in just a few generations, the cemetery was swallowed up.
The difference, of course, is that most cemeteries were not swallowed up by car factories.
It is one of the oldest Jewish cemeteries in Michigan. (The Beth El plot in Elmwood was established in 1850 as an independent cemetery and therefore takes the “oldest” title.) Congregants of Shaarey Zedek acquired the land for Beth Olem in the early 1860s, and the first burial probably happened around 1868. Germans owned the surrounding farms. Later 19th-century cemeteries like Woodmere were intentionally planned according to principles of rural design; Beth Olem was just rural. As we drove with a security escort across acres of parking lots — past test tracks, loading docks and clearance gates — I tried to imagine what this trip used to look like. Muddy horsepaths. Cows in the road.
That Beth Olem is from that world — and now exists on the grounds of a sprawling automotive complex that is manufacturing electric cars — inspires some serious spiritual awe. It’s a small, old-world cemetery, just over 2 acres, ringed by a red brick wall that hugs in the graveyard’s towering, ancient trees. It’s like a mirage. Its tombstones are sooty with age.