Michigan's Oldest Cemetery Site

“Beth El, the first Jewish Congregation in Michigan, was organized in Detroit on September 22, 1850, by 12 families.  This half-acre cemetery, dedicated on January 1851, was known then as “The Champlain Street Cemetery of Temple Beth El” because Lafayette was formerly Champlain Street.  The first interment was in fall of 1851, and in 1854 Samuel Marcus, the first rabbi of Beth El, was buried here.  The cemetery, containing many graves of Jewish war veterans, was in active use until the 1950s.”

As obligated by Jewish law, one of the first things an organized Jewish community must do is purchase land to bury the deceased. The Bet El (House of God) Society, Michigan’s first Jewish congregation (known today as Temple Beth El) did that in 1851 paying $150 to purchase one-half acre on Champlain Street (now Lafayette) in Detroit. At the time, the land abutted Detroit’s Elmwood cemetery, but was part of the cemetery. The first burial in the cemetery was Sarah Silberman who died in 1851. The Elmwood Cemetery, founded in 1846, soon acquired the land adding to its 40 acres in a location that was far enough from the city to feel as if one was in the country. The Elmwood Cemetery holds the distinction of being the oldest non-denominational burial ground in Michigan and the first integrated cemetery in the Midwest.  Over time, the lush park-like cemetery and final resting place for some of Detroit’s most notable leaders and recognizable names grew to encompass more than 80 acres. The cemetery is also notable for its rolling topography, indicative of Detroit’s natural landscape.

Besides being small in size, the Elmwood Cemetery was not conducive to family plots and could not meet the long-term needs of the congregation. In 1873, Temple Beth El purchased Section North F in the Woodmere Cemetery. There are many important Jewish Detroiters buried in Elmwood Cemetery including Samuel Marcus, Temple Beth El’s first Rabbi, who died in the cholera epidemic in 1854; and Edward Kanter, the German immigrant who learned to speak several Native American languages and founded the German-American bank. The last burial at the Elmwood Cemetery, the first Jewish burial in nearly 30 years, was in 2011.

back to top