Edition: U.S. / Global

Detroit Journal; Must Cemetery Yield to Airport?

By ISABEL WILKERSON, Special to the New York Times
Published: March 30, 1988

These days, other than the oak trees on the hillside, there is nothing serene about the Serenity lot or any other lot at Detroit's Gethsemane Cemetery.

City officials want to remove headstones there to expand Detroit City Airport on the north. Outraged relatives of people buried there have appeared at City Council meetings by the hundreds to protest the move, some shouting obscenities and waving placards, warning, ''Not over my dead body.''

The city recently bought the old German Lutheran cemetery and in late February announced plans to fill in land over 10,000 graves, remove many headstones and replace some. Officials want to bring commercial jets to the East Side airport and hope to have Southwest Airlines operating there by June.

To do that, the city must lengthen several runways and provide a safety zone in case an airplane lands or takes off beyond the runway. The safety zone would be the northern half of Gethsemane.

The soft land there must be made more firm with about two feet of gravel and clay to support a plane's weight. To do this, at least 10,000 headstones will have to be temporarily removed. About 500 upright tombstones will have to be removed altogether and replaced with flat markers.

Betty Saccoia's mother, father, grandmother, grandfather, uncle, aunt, niece and daughter are all buried in the path of what will be Runway 33. ''There's no way they're going to get those headstones back in the right spot,'' Mrs. Saccoia said. ''You could end up putting flowers on somebody else's grave.''

To avoid mixing up the headstones, officials plan to ''videotape the graves to document their relationship to each other,'' said Robert Berg, spokesman for Mayor Coleman A. Young. ''The headstones will only be moved a few feet from the graves.''

Relatives, with visions of graves being dug out or cemented over, are furious. They have organized into two protest groups: Save Our Loved Ones and Rest In Peace. Rest in Peace is now gathering signatures on a petition for a restraining order.

''We want them to stay out of the cemetery and leave us alone,'' said Diana Menendez, a leader of Rest In Peace.

The city took out full-page advertisements in local papers explaining its position, while the cemetery manager, William Eldridge, quit because of what he called the city's ''cavalier disregard for human sentiments,'' saying, ''You're dealing with loved ones here, not closing off a road.''

The plan drew the attention of relatives who had not been to the cemetery in years. People have called from Florida, Texas, Arizona and Montreal. They have driven in from across the state and lined up everyday at a trailer at the cemetery gate to check on their relatives' graves.

Most are outraged that headstones they carefully picked out and paid dearly for may be dug up and in some cases thrown out forever. Mr. Berg said the city had not decided what it would do with the headstones. ''If people want, they can take them home with them,'' he said.

Some people say they want to avoid the confusion altogether and move their relatives' remains somewhere else. There have been 700 requests so far and more coming in everyday, said O'Neil D. Swanson, who was hired by the city to coordinate ''grief counseling'' out of the trailer.

''People are afraid concrete is going to be poured over mom or dad,'' Mr. Swanson said. Officials have agreed to pay up to $2,000 to remove any of the remains. ''In a worst case scenario, we might be faced with disinterring 1,500 to 2,000 people,'' he said. ''That's a lot of people.''

City engineers have completed surveying the cemetery for an environmental assessment study submitted to the Federal Aviation Administration. A public hearing is scheduled for April 28.

Relatives say that if the city gets its way, Gethsemane won't be a cemetery anymore. Officials have already said that, after the construction is over, the safety zone will be fenced off and people will be prohibited from visiting the graves whenever planes are flying. Grieving relatives probably won't be able to leave flowers either because the safety zone is supposed to be clear of obstructions.

The thought of such restrictions infuriate people like Miss Menendez who lives 10 minutes from Gethsemane and buried her mother, Willie Dickerson, there in January 1987 so she could feel closer.

''I go to see my mother three or four times a week,'' Miss Menendez said, ''I don't want her disturbed.'' I plant flowers in that hard dirt. I go and talk to my mother, and I cry there. I don't want to have to be out there crying with an armed guard watching me.''

Photo of LaWaine Clark and her sister, Betty Saccol standing near graves of relatives (NYT/Peter Yates); map of Detroit showing location of the proposed safety zone (NYT)