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Two friends try to clean up a cemetery, but run into trouble

Apr 15, 2016

7,100 bodies are buried at the former Eloise mental hospital in Westland, near Detroit. But you'd never guess that from walking around the property.

A marker in the Eloise potter's field

That’s because the cemetery, which was never meant to be a traditional cemetery, looks more like an empty field. But look down, and you'll discover rows and rows of cement markers the size of large bricks with numbers stamped into them.

“This person buried here is number 5,632,” says Felicia Sills, as she gets on her knees and gently traces her finger over each number.

Sills grew up in the area with her friend John Byrnes. They’d heard about the cemetery growing up, but had never been there until last year. They were deeply moved by its poor condition and decided to tidy things up — cut the grass, clean off the markers, and add fake flowers to the graves.

Sills points out a marker buried in heavy brush
Credit Kyle Norris

“This is really sad to me. This person was more than just a number,” she says.

But that’s all there is. Just a number. No name and barely any records to match a number with a name.

The people buried here were former patients at Eloise and were unclaimed after they died. Many of their families were too poor to afford a burial. So they were buried without much fanfare in what’s known as a “potter’s field.”

“This is somebody’s grandmother," says Sills. "This is somebody’s mother. This is somebody’s father, this is somebody’s child that’s buried here,” says Sills.

Eloise was once a giant institution.

It opened in the 1830s as a poorhouse and farm, and it closed in the 1980s as a general hospital. In between it was many things, including a mental hospital and tuberculosis sanitarium. During its heyday in the 1920s it had 10,000 patients and 2,000 staff.

The staff there pioneered groundbreaking medical techniques, including the use of X-rays, kidney dialysis and electro-shock and psychotherapy.

Eloise patients played a big role in helping develop these treatments, says John Byrnes, "and to leave those people like they’re nothing and nobodies is just heart-wrenching.”

Byrnes and Sills wanted to fix the markers that were deteriorating or had sunken into the earth. So the friends came back, last spring and summer, and spent hours working in the field. Their friends and other volunteers joined them.

The Eloise potter's field
Credit Kyle Norris

But when the owner of the property, Wayne County, found out, it told them to stop or they’d be arrested.

A county public affairs officer says this land was never meant to be a traditional cemetery. She says the markers can’t handle exposure to the elements. The county also had safety and liability concerns with people working on their property.

So the two friends put their work on hold.

Now they’re collaborating with a genealogist and are in touch with a non-profit called Friends of Eloise to come up with a game plan to present to Wayne County. 

In the meantime, Sills and Byrnes hear from people with family members buried here who want their help.

Jennifer Dera's great-grandfather is buried here. He died at Eloise from tuberculosis in 1918 at age 31. His wife and sister came to Eloise to identify his body, but they didn’t have the money to bury him.

Death certificate for Jennifer Dera's great-grandfather, John Knitter. He died at Eloise from tuberculosis.

“Just because you’re poor doesn’t mean you don’t deserve the dignity of being marked and say, 'Hey, I was here. I was someone.'”

Felicia Sills and John Byrnes have another person on their minds lately.

Rachel Byrnes isn’t buried here. She was John’s Byrnes sister, and Felicia Sills’ best friend. She died suddenly a few months before they began spending time at Eloise.

Felicia Sills and John Byrnes stand in the potter's field
Credit Kyle Norris

Sills says her friend’s death is very raw and she needs to stay close to John and his family to remember her best friend.

John Byrnes says he didn’t think of his sister when he was working in the cemetery. He says being out in nature just felt peaceful and good.

Both Byrnes and Sills say they’re fighting for the dead, so that they will not be forgotten.

And they both admit, they feel like the dead are saying back to them: thank you.