United Memorial Gardens
"I'm the oldest man in the cemetery business in Michigan," said Ed Wensley, looking far too young for a man born in 1922. Ed was driving us around United Memorial Gardens, his cemetery, even though he no longer owned it.
Ed was a grave salesman in 1953 when he bought a small, weed-choked, abandoned boneyard. Ed cleared the land, built roads, planted trees, and expanded it to over 100 acres. He added attractions: a life-size carving of the Last Supper and big bronze bas-reliefs of George Washington in prayer and Abe Lincoln "looking up to God."
Ed built a lake, named it for himself, and filled it with paddleboats and live swans. He opened the cemetery to picnics and hayrides. "I built the bonfires," said Ed. Volunteers would gather at the cemetery's wedding chapel each August to read the entire New Testament aloud in less than 12 hours. Everyone who participated got a coupon for a dollar off at McDonald's.
"I wanted our cemetery to be unique," said Ed. "The funeral industry thought I was crazy."
A brain hemorrhage forced Ed to sell United Memorial Gardens in 1996. Its new owners put an end to the hayrides and paddleboats. But Ed's physical monuments remained, as did Ed, giving tours of the place for 15 years; we were among his last customers (Ed's wife finally made him retire to Florida in August 2011).
What Ed built is impressive. There's the world's first life-size replica of the Tabernacle of Moses and Ark of the Covenant, and a girl-on-a-swing monument to "Little Cecelia," the only survivor of a 1987 Detroit jetliner crash (Ed provided free graves to 11 of the victims). The "Gateway to Animal Heaven" has a eight-foot-tall granite birdhouse mausoleum as well as an oversized doghouse for deceased fidos. There's a mass grave for medical school body donors and a two-sided "moving face of Jesus" sculpture, even better than the one at the now-defunct Christus Gardens.
Ed created a home-state tribute, the Wonders of Michigan. He picked 37 attractions, engraved them on granite tablets, set them 25 feet apart in the shape of the Michigan mitten (sorry, U.P. Yoopers), and erected a 14-foot-high viewing deck so that visitors could see the outline. The new owners tore down the deck but the stones remain, surrounded by halos of graves of those who want to spend eternity at their favorite Michigan vacation spots.
Plot purchasers select where they will slumber, which leads to clusters and gaps -- so far, more folks want to be buried near the nod to Michigan's auto industry than the stone extolling the virtues of salt mines 1,000 feet below Detroit. A monument paying tribute to shopping ("Michigan Has Great Malls") awaits future demand.
For the kids, Ed built the Facts of Life section. 76 tombstones are set flush with the ground, each with a rhyming inscription written by Ed, cautioning young people against drinking, smoking, drugs, gambling, immodest dress, substandard personal hygiene, nonstandard sexual orientation, and lax work habits.
Boys who prove their manhood are Causing girls to go too far
Bikinis may look good on Annie But on most girls you just see fannie
The Garden of Memory displays a bronze bas-relief of a 500-foot-tall Jesus rapping his knuckles against the UN building in New York City ("Jesus," said Ed, "is always knocking on people's hearts to get them to accept the Christian way of life"). Also here is the impressive grave of -- Ed Wensley, who proudly said that his three-part tombstone cost $24,000. "There isn't another cemetery owner or funeral director in Michigan that has a memorial as large as mine."
Tourists are welcome, maps are available; the cemetery has no fences and is open every day. It won't be quite the same without Ed as its guide, but his vision ensures that United Memorial Gardens will always be entertaining to visit.