In all her years as a funeral director in Locust Point, Shirley Doda takes pride that she has never mailed a bill to a customer.
"That's the way we do things here. I've never once been out a cent," she said.
Today, Mrs. Doda runs a family business begun by her grandfather in the 19th century. Both her father and mother were funeral directors as was her late husband, Victor P. Doda. Her 23-year-old son, Victor Jr., is following in the family operation.
The Charles L. Stevens Funeral Home run by the Dodas primarily serves the portion of South Baltimore adjacent to Fort McHenry, a peninsula long known as Locust Point where neighborhood pride runs as high as the flag that flies over the historic installation.
In the past six months, Mrs. Doda, her son and daughter Ann Shirley Bowman have expanded their rowhouse-wide funeral home at Fort Avenue and Hull Street, where it was established in 1923.
"I waited 42 years to buy that house next door," Mrs. Doda said. As part of the funeral parlor's decor, she is planning a Fort McHenry Lounge where neighborhood artifacts will be displayed. Some will chronicle the valiant fight that Locust Point waged against a proposed Interstate 95 bridge alongside Fort McHenry.
Locust Point is a waterfront neighborhood where German, Irish and Polish families have lived for decades. After a death in the family, a funeral follows that is a bedrock of tradition with flowers, prayers and hours of visiting.
"I run the most unique funeral home in Baltimore City," Mrs. Doda said.
The door of the funeral parlor, as she always calls it, is left unlocked, except at night. There's a full bath, including a shower, on the premises.
"You can never tell when people might be coming a long distance and need to get cleaned up," she said. "Besides, it makes the place more homelike."
And there's always a full box of tissues at the kneeler alongside the coffin. "I can't tell you the number of people who thank us for this," Victor Doda said.
He said that when he and his mother go over the funeral arrangements with the family, a price is established.
"We don't ever need to send a bill or go after anyone. We've never needed to," Mr. Doda said.
Mrs. Doda recalls that her mother, the late Helen C. Hughes Stevens, saved household money under the mattress and then used it to send her husband, Charles L. Stevens, to mortuary science school in Philadelphia.
After his training, Mr. Stevens took his wife for a Sunday walk along Fort Avenue. When the couple got to the corner of Hull Street, he told her he'd just purchased the old Latrobe movie theater, at 1501 E. Fort Ave., and would convert it into a funeral parlor.
"There was all stale popcorn on the floor. My mother cried for two weeks. But, over the years, it's been a good corner. It conforms to all the rules they teach you. It's on a busy street and it's close to a church," Mrs. Doda said.
"When my father started, there were nine funeral homes in South Baltimore. People buried along ethnic lines, certain nationalities went to certain undertakers. My father did the Germans and Hungarians," Mrs. Doda said.
Funerals are part of the social fabric of Locust Point.
And there's an unshakable legend concerning Mrs. Doda's mother: "If Nell Stevens doesn't bury you, you don't go to heaven."