Making a career of bringing comfort to the bereaved

New Cathedral Cemetery caretaker makes her business all about the living

Baltimore ... or Less

October 31, 2004|By Patricia Meisol | Patricia Meisol,Sun Staff

Anne Gahan Lucido has one thing to say about death: There is no such thing, at least as a finality.

Whatever death is, its gloom hasn't rubbed off on her. Quite the opposite: Since she arrived at New Cathedral Cemetery to record the plats and keep the books nearly 35 years ago, she has cheered the place up. Certainly she has made people who visit New Cathedral feel better about it.

"You made a very emotion-filled event much more comfortable," wrote a woman who traveled from Irvine, Calif., to bury a relative in the vast 1871 cemetery a few blocks from busy Route 40 on the city-county line.

More than 300 people a year are buried at New Cathedral, the oldest Catholic cemetery in Baltimore, and hundreds more come to visit or ask questions about the dead. Whatever they want, Lucido is out to please.

"You have to like people to work in a cemetery," she says.

This time of year, some people are spooked over graveyards. Lucido's phobias include heights and small spaces, but to her, the cemetery is calming.

People in their misery are thankful for her spritely smile, her knowing turn of the eye, and sometimes, her matter-of-fact attitude. Last week, for instance, when a family brought in cremated remains to be buried and wondered if they needed another burial box, Lucido suggested they open the box they had received by mail. When they saw the beautifully carved urn inside, all solemnity in the room dissolved and they chatted amiably, relieved to know that there was dignity in this death. There was even a consideration of how the urn might look at home.

Lucido wouldn't think of approaching people unless they want to talk.

"You have to read them first," she says. "Some people want light.

"They want you to lighten things up for them."

Working at a cemetery was not a job Lucido chose. She'd been a highly paid secretary in a chemical company in the early 1950s, with clearance to work in the defense industry before her children were born. But one day her daughter was bitten by a cat and she learned from her husband that they had no health insurance; plus, his business was bankrupt. When a priest suggested that the mother of two quit volunteering and take a paying job during school hours at the cemetery, she agreed.

She proved to be the perfect person for the job, growing up as she did in a big Irish family where death was viewed as a transition to a new life. Aunts, uncles and cousins abounded, and adults took over for one another as needed, including weekdays when her father worked in Manhattan. Matters of life or death, these were a state of mind, like whether one felt hot or cold. Lucido always feels cold. One morning she wore her leather jacket around her office until the mail lady arrived and announced, "Whew, it's hot in here."

"Is it?" she replied. "In that case, I'll take off my jacket."

Whatever her view, she does not impose it; she waits until people approach her, then she reassures them. Working in the office, she never sees funerals. Cremations are more social.

Host of the wake

With the body cremated and with no funeral director or procession of cars, family members and friends gather outside carrying the ashes, sometimes of a family member who long ago moved away, talking and reminiscing. They get to wondering where an aunt or uncle is buried, and they come inside Lucido's office, use the bathroom, help themselves to a cookie from her tin, and ask her to look up other family plots and soon, she is hosting a regular Irish wake.

Weeks or months later, some of these people return to visit her. Lillian Robins visited every Wednesday for eight years. Lucido, who met her when Robins came to bury her sister, packed her a lunch each week because there was no place to buy one.

"It's a wonderful place to come to visit," Lucido says. "You don't have to have anybody buried here."

People, when they get to know her, reveal lingering worries, like whether the $350 cement burial box they bought for a relative's casket was good enough.

"You could spend $2,500 and it's not going to bring him back," she'll tell them.

More than 100,000 people are buried at New Cathedral Cemetery. Originally, there were large Irish and Italian sections. Now they are all mixed up. Lucido's sister, Flora Gahan Callanan, who died at 32, days after delivering a new baby, leaving a husband and three other children, is buried near Baltimore Mayor Thomas L. D'Alesandro Jr., and his name's not Irish.

These days, Lucido can't decide whether she wants to be buried in Double J (her mother's Irish family) or Double V (her husband's Italian family). But she's sure she wants to be buried with the shopping bag of thank-you notes she keeps under her desk. They are from people who promise to visit, offer to take her to lunch, and send money. When she returns their money, they write again, to report they put it in the second collection at Sunday Mass, as she suggested.

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