Graveyard shifts

Four people with grim faces walk into the tombstone store.

They've come here, to Otto Schemansky Sons Monuments on Van Dyke near McNichols, to get a marker for the gravesite of a 7-year-old girl shot and killed by Detroit police in a bungled raid several weeks back. These four, a mess of street manners and empty pockets, are her family. 

After all the news stories and press conferences, and the candles and stuffed animals stacked on their front porch, they're still burdened with the lonely duty of buying a headstone for a dead little girl.

They've come because this place supplied a grave marker for a Detroit toddler who died not too long ago when the car she was riding in ran a stop sign and plowed into a van, throwing her out the window. That family had no money for a headstone, so store owners Paul and Mary Weeks donated one to them. Word spread, as these things do through the neighborhoods, and now another family too broke to buy a decent gravestone found their way here.

Paul slowly takes the time to show them the options, such as the different lettering that's available. "The gold letters really pop," he tells them. Won't cost any extra, he adds.

"How much?" mumbles the girl's father, wearing cornrows and a white T-shirt. He's doing all the talking for the family.

Normal price for the lettering is about $225. Paul looks at him, thinks it over. "One-fifty," he says. The father says they'll talk it over and come back later.

Many customers here can't afford elaborate monuments for their deceased loved ones. Others can't buy a marker at all, so someone they cared about winds up an anonymous bump in the cemetery grass, or an urn of powder on a shelf. 

You can't have no marker, though, Paul always insists, so he finds himself whittling down prices for those who show up, grieving and broke, at the business' doorstep.

"I'll tell you something," Paul says. "If you do something good like that for 'em, they'll be the first ones here to help you out if you have a problem. They remember who helps them out, who walks on them. You gotta remember that."

It's a tough
business when every one of your customers comes to you in misery.

"Selling this is not like selling anything else," Mary says. "It's a once-in-a-lifetime purchase. I know a lot of times I have a family in and they can't make up their mind and they'll say, 'Oh, I'm sorry,' and I tell them 'Don't be sorry. You're going to do this only one time for them.'"

Mary's family purchased Otto Schemansky Sons Monuments in 1977 from the great-grandchildren of its founder and namesake, who started the business in 1883 on lower Gratiot near downtown. It migrated north and over to Van Dyke in the mid-1940s, into a square cinderblock building with a workshop out back. When Mary's dad bought it, he kept its century-old name instead of putting his own up on the sign. After he retired, Mary and Paul took over.

There used to be more than a dozen monument engravers along this strip of Van Dyke, which runs between several of the city's old cemeteries. Now there are only two stores left. This one's the oldest.

Mary, 57, handles the office work; husband Paul, 43, their kids and Mary's brother do the heavy lifting outside. They've all learned to deal gently with distraught customers, though Mary is the most soothing and comforting, and the first person a customer sees. Sometimes she finds herself hugging the more distraught mourners who come through the door. Most are from this wrecked east side neighborhood.

"I love them," she says. "It's a different world down here. It makes you appreciate what you have. You feel for them. They have a real struggle, and they're good people."

Payment plans are available, but all monuments have to be paid in full before they're placed in the cemetery. Once they're in the ground they can't be repossessed because that would violate state grave-robbing laws.

The markers are granite and come in different colors, shipped from different quarries around the world. Prices range from $200 for a small slab with a name and dates on it to $30,000 and more for tall sculptures to as much as hundreds of thousands for a private mausoleum. No matter what, Paul is adamant that something — anything — should be on someone's grave.

"You can't just have nothing there!" he says, volume rising. "To me, whenever I see something with nothing on it, it tells me the family never respected them."

There's an old
house next door, shuttered and empty. A man named James lived there for years; after Paul began working down here, the two grew close. "One of my best friends," Paul says. "He taught me so much about Detroit." One day the family realized they hadn't seen James in a while; Paul broke into the house and found him lying there, dead. "He didn't take care of himself," Paul explains.

After that, the Weeks family tended to James' old blind dog until he, too, died. They buried him in the yard, under the spot where he liked to lie. 

The lawn grew wild and the family kept cutting it. Thieves would try to break in and Paul would scare them off. 

Pretty soon, Paul — stocky, thick-armed and quick-tempered — found himself chasing away people trying to get into other houses or cars. Neighbors noticed and started calling him to report crimes in progress. "Whether it's Mandy or Dave down the street or whoever, they'll call down here when they see somebody messing around by one of these houses 'cause they know — boom — I'm gone," he says, shouting. When Paul gets worked up his face becomes flushed and menacing. "I'll go right out after them, damn right, and everybody's yelling at me — 'Hey wait a minute, you forgot your gun.' I don't care." 

Paul moved to the Detroit area from a little town up north years ago, and married his best friend's sister in the 1980s. After all this time working in the city, it's gotten into his veins, grown to fascinate him. For a while he was trying to buy James' house to stay in during the week, to spend the night and live through what his neighbors live through, like the woman who tells him of nights spent lying on the floor with her two kids when shootouts happen out in the street. 

"What gives me a right to have a business in this community if I'm not part of the community?" he says.

So he chases thieves, and mows lawns, and gives out food baskets during holidays. He's part of a group that renovated nearby Fletcher Field, installing playground equipment and keeping the weeds cut. He basically adopted himself into the neighborhood, a self-designated caretaker for the old ladies and little kids and the helpless, pretty much anyone who seems trapped or lost out here in this wild, sometimes dangerous neighborhood.

"The ones who are stuck down here, there are some good people," Paul says, standing in the store's fenced-in yard. Two guard dogs at his feet glare at strangers passing by. "You'll meet some wonderful people around here that I like better than even my own family members. They're a lot better people. But they're just caught."