Historic undertaking

Dec 6, 2006 at 12:00 am

No matter what you feel about undertaking, you must admit that it makes for a steady business.

The firms that bury us tend to be almost immortally durable. For an example, look no further than Birmingham's William R. Hamilton Company, one of the oldest going concerns in the state. How old? Real old. Like, when the funeral home was founded in downtown Detroit, the city had a population of less than 50,000 and the president was some guy named Franklin Pierce.

Started in 1855 by a man named Sam Farwell, it fell under the leadership of William Hamilton within a decade. Hamilton was superintendent at another Detroit institution that's still with us: Detroit's Elmwood Cemetery, then relatively new, having opened in 1846. Under his leadership, the company developed a reputation for high standards. For instance, he was known for his pride in the firm's horses, and he traveled widely, seeking out teams of only the finest draft animals.

Similarly, when the motor age arrived, the Detroit outfit handled the first funeral in the United States to use automobiles in the procession. When auto pioneer Henry Stevens died in 1910, the bereaved family felt a motorized funeral was in order. A Grabowsky panel truck the company had been experimenting with replaced the traditional black horses.

Within nine years, the firm went from puttering a lone truck down Lafayette to a fleet of motor hearses.

The firm catered to Detroit's elite, handling the funerals for families with such names as Dow, Stroh, Kresge, Hudson and even Ford — including Henry Ford I and II. But its most enduring fame is due to a bit of drop-in business. In 1926, despite suffering terrible abdominal pain after being sucker punched by a student athlete in Montreal, Harry Houdini stayed on tour and came to Detroit, only to die of a burst appendix after a Halloween show at Detroit's Garrick Theatre. The Hamilton Funeral Home handled the escape artist's remains before sending him on to his final audience at a New York funeral service.

As Detroit's suburbs mushroomed after World War II, the Hamilton family expanded its operations, buying the Bell Funeral Home in Birmingham in the 1950s. They purchased the Groesbeck Funeral Home in Mt. Clemens in 1979. In that year, they also finally closed the Cass Corridor location, and became an exclusively suburban operation. (It's now the ArtsCenter Music School.)

Today, the Hamilton family is five generations into the profession, under the leadership of William R. Hamilton's great-great-granddaughter, Barry Hamilton. She says there are more big changes in store for the family business, and, surprisingly, that the sorts of elaborate funeral wares mentioned in this week's cover story are, among her clients, on the wane.

"There are still expensive caskets, bronze and copper, but most people aren't choosing that kind of funeral anymore. A lot of people don't see any value in putting money into a casket, to be honest."

So where is the funeral business headed? Hamilton says you can see the future of the business in gleaming contemporary mausoleums. In Clinton Township, Resurrection Cemetery's Mausoleum of the Angels was built in 2000 and is now 98 percent sold. The newer Angel of Peace Mausoleum at Guardian Angel Cemetery in Rochester is a double-decker structure with a generous interior and 2,500 crypts and 2,500 niches. Most Holy Trinity Mausoleum at Resurrection Cemetery in Clinton Township is twice as large, sporting climate-control, commissioned artwork, outdoor garden crypts and dramatic interior spaces.

Another trend Hamilton notices among her clients is "direct cremation ... which means you never have a viewing or visitation." (Trade magazines, she says, discuss such exotic ash dispositions as crockery, mixing them into paint to create a portrait of the departed, compressing them into diamonds and shooting them into space.)

Next month, Hamilton is closing the 20,000-square-foot Birmingham funeral home and opening a cremation society in Grosse Pointe. There, people will find a "store shopping experience" within a 1,000-square-foot office. Those seeking direct-cremation services will be able to make all arrangements and view samples of caskets on a big-screen TV.

"If you're going to have a cremation, you don't need a funeral home. What you need is an office where you can make your plans, pick out what you like, and then we'll show up at the church with your loved one in a casket."

It's a no-nonsense approach that Hamilton says is being embraced by the company's upper-income clientele, especially Protestants with addresses like Birmingham, Bloomfield or Grosse Pointe.

"The funeral industry has been fighting this every inch of the way, and it's time to give up fighting and let people have what they want. ... No company stays in business for 150 years without re-creating itself every once in a while."

Michael Jackman is a Metro Times copy editor and writer. Send comments to [email protected].