Families say Detroit cemetery lost headstones, moved grave markers of their loved ones

Families unsure where loved ones are buried

DETROIT – Grave markers moved, missing headstones, and other issues have plagued families with loved ones buried at Gethsemane Cemetery.

Many families who spoke with Local 4 said they are not sure if their loved ones are actually buried where the cemetery said they were.

A mother said her son’s grave was in one place, but his headstone was moved to another location. Another woman said her grandparents’ headstones had been moved multiple times. A man whose parents were buried there decades ago said their gravesites just vanished.

---> More: Dozens of families feel betrayed by Detroit cemetery

Almost all of the 25 families Local 4 spoke to said there was one specific thing the cemetery would not let them do: Watch as they buried their loved one.

It struck Shelly Calvert as strange that the cemetery wouldn’t let her family watch as her mother was buried. She said they told her that it’s just not their policy. And weeks later, when Calvert went to the cemetery to visit her mother’s gravesite -- what she saw, horrified her.

There was a huge expanse of freshly dug-up dirt, broken pieces of headstones, and grave markers, just carelessly lying in the dirt. She couldn’t find her mother’s grave marker.

“I had a really bad panic attack that day,” Calvert said.

Calvert said she complained to cemetery management. The next time she visited her mother’s grave, the marker had reappeared, but in a different place from where it was originally. Calvert said she doesn’t know if her mother is buried where the cemetery said she is buried.

Photos Shelly Calvert took of Gethsemane Cemetery. (WDIV)

Gethsemane Cemetery lawsuit

A few years ago, attorney Mark Rossman started hearing complaints about the Gethsemane Cemetery.

He spoke with hundreds of families and filed a class action lawsuit in 2021 against the city of Detroit, which owns the cemetery, and several cemetery management companies the city contracted with.

“When we went down in the catacombs to look at the records we found that it was a complete disaster . . . and there were outdated maps, outdated files, papers on the desks and the floors -- it was an absolute disgrace,” Rossman said.

Immediately after the class action lawsuit was filed in court, several of the city’s cemetery management companies declared bankruptcy, which got them off the hook. Then Wayne County Judge Shiela Gibson gave the city immunity, meaning families can’t sue the city.

In response to questions about several grave sites, the city insisted in an email that there is no evidence of a headstone purchase for two graves with missing headstones. The family had receipts for those headstones from 1976.

The city said a gravesite marker for Elvis Deberry had been in place since he was buried three years ago, but his family has been searching for the location all that time and could not find it. Local 4 investigators also searched until they were kicked off the property and also could not find the location of the grave.

The city reminded Local 4 that “every lawsuit filed against the city regarding these types of concerns has been dismissed.”

“So they won’t be held accountable for wrongdoing that happened at their property,” Baldwin said. “It’s so unfair. It’s so unfair. And the city should at like, I said, at least give the families some closure. Give them some . . . apologize.”

Gethsemane Cemetery kept selling burials

A 2021 Detroit police investigation of Gethsemane Cemetery found multiple bodies in locations different from where the above-ground markers indicated they would be. No one was charged with a crime.

Even though there were clear problems, Gethsemane Cemetery kept selling burials. When Yolanda Baldwin and Madison Reed visited Gethsemane Cemetery they were stunned by how crowded it seemed.

“Even though it’s full, we’re gonna keep selling, keep selling, keep selling. That’s crazy,” Baldwin said.

The city of Detroit said it did not profit from burials sold at the cemetery. The city said the cemetery management companies made most of the money from sales and those companies are responsible.

Local 4 Investigators obtained the city’s contracts with cemetery management companies going back to 1992.

One management company S.T. Enterprises was paid more than $470,000 by the city to manage city-owned cemeteries between 2013 and 2021 -- and that’s on top of what the company made selling burials.

To make room for more burials, the city and S.T. Enterprises agreed to turn a cemetery road into even more gravesites.

Detroit issues statement

Detroit’s Director of the General Services Department Crystal Perkins released the following statement:

“We recognize that there has been confusion with some families regarding the location of their loved ones that were a result of problems with record keeping from a prior operator. We deeply apologize to any family that has experienced that type of confusion and have rectified every situation that has been brought to our attention. We are more than willing to work with any family seeking clarity as to the location of their loved one’s gravesite.”

“To be clear, the City does not operate Gethsemane or the other two cemeteries or make any money from them. The private contractors do this, and they – not the City - are responsible for burials, maintenance, record-keeping, contracting with families for burial services, and receiving money for burial services. Every lawsuit filed against the City regarding these types of concerns has been dismissed.”

The city says families can contact Derrick Gray for help with Gethsemane Cemetery problems. His email address is grayde@detroitmi.gov and his phone number is 313-224-1100.

The cemetery is no longer selling burials. The cemetery management company that took over in 2021 is only maintaining the grounds.

About the Authors:

Karen Drew is the anchor of Local 4 News First at 4, weekdays at 4 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. She is also an award-winning investigative reporter.

Kayla is a Web Producer for ClickOnDetroit. Before she joined the team in 2018 she worked at WILX in Lansing as a digital producer.