A life lived among the dead

Mike Tuite is retiring after four decades of taking care of the memories buried at Green Mount Cemetery

January 04, 2009|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

Mike Tuite, who marked his last day as Green Mount Cemetery superintendent on New Year's Eve, gets a kick out of telling visitors that he knows where all the bodies are buried.

And after 43 years, rising from grass cutter to superintendent, Tuite has had a lot of time to take in the marble-marked resting places of the nearly 60,000 perpetual residents who have filled up the cemetery's 68 acres since the first burial there in 1839.

Mention a historic name - assassin John Wilkes Booth; former Maryland Govs. Albert C. Ritchie and Theodore Roosevelt McKeldin; Enoch Pratt; Betsy Patterson, who was briefly the sister-in-law of Napoleon Bonaparte - and Tuite, without missing a beat, can tell you where they're spending eternity.

Well, at least where their earthly remains are.

On a cold, damp day a few weeks before his retirement, Tuite, 65, a large, jovial man with a slightly booming voice and a trace of a mustache, reflected on his work.

"I'd get a call at 2 or 3 in the morning to meet the police at Green Mount; heck, I was more scared driving there than being in the cemetery," he said. "Actually, once I got here, I felt very secure. I've never felt uncomfortable here."

Tuite didn't plan on a cemetery career, but circumstances intervened. The Newark, N.J., native had planned to stop briefly in Baltimore in 1963 and then move on.

"I had decided to do some hitchhiking - back in those days, you could do that safely," he said. "Well, Baltimore was the first big city I came to, and I was running low on money, so I took a temporary job in the mail room of The Baltimore Sun."

After the newspaper went on strike in early 1965, Tuite was out of a job. He walked to Baltimore Cemetery and got an offer to be a grass cutter. On his way home, he also inquired at Green Mount Cemetery.

"I had two job offers on the same day, and since I lived in a room on Calvert Street, Green Mount was a lot closer," he said. "So I've been here since April 5, 1965."

He progressed to grounds foreman and, since 1982, has been superintendent of a crew of about a dozen men.

"I like working outside and - don't think me crazy - I enjoy my work. That's why I could never leave," he said.

Tuite checks on his crews, who this time of the year are still cleaning up autumn leaves and doing other maintenance chores. They also dig the graves that Tuite lays out.

"We dig 'em by hand because we can't get a backhoe in here. It's too tight. It's all pick-and-shovel work, and we go down 4 feet. Not 6 feet," he said.

Tuite's crews also prepare grave sites for burials, installing the coffin-lowering mechanism and setting up chairs and tents on artificial turf.

When there is a funeral - about 20 a year, Tuite estimates - he meets mourners at the gatehouse and escorts the procession through a network of curving roads to the grave site.

Giving an impromptu tour in his white Ford Escape SUV, Tuite remarks, "There's a lot of Baltimore history here" as he heads for the grave of little Olivia Cushing Whitridge, born Sept. 8, 1837. She was the first person to be buried in Green Mount, on Dec. 7, 1839.

Tuite also points out his favorite monument - a statue of Little Red Riding Hood that has marked the grave of William M. Black since his death in 1974.

"My understanding is that this statue was on his fireplace mantel and it was in his will that it was to be placed on his grave when he died," Tuite said.

"Over there is the grave of Sidney Lanier," Tuite said, then recited the poet's words inscribed on the headstone: "How dark, how dark soever the race that must needs be run, I am lit with the sun."

Tuite has countless stories, including one about the day actor John Carradine showed up unannounced, driven by a chauffeur.

"He said, 'I'm John Carradine,' and then told me he had played John Wilkes Booth on the Broadway stage so often that he wanted to see his grave before he died," Tuite recalled.

He points out the grave of Moses Sheppard, founder of what is now Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital. Sheppard died in 1857.

"He bought four lots, or 80 graves. There are 79 spaces left to be used, but according to his will, they can't be sold. So he sits here all by himself, surrounded by no one," Tuite said.

Even though there are no lots left for purchase, there are still several full-sized crypts in the two-story mausoleum built in 1929. It also has niches for cremated remains.

Inside the marble-walled building, footsteps echo. There is a chill in the air as Tuite opens the gate of an elevator that chugs to the second floor.

"Here is the grave of Isaac Emerson, who invented Bromo-Seltzer," he said. Emerson, who died in 1931, is buried inside a decorated bronze sarcophagus that sits on the floor of a rather large room. His wife is to the left, in a similar crypt.

Peering through a locked iron gate, a visitor can make out a stained-glass window and a mourning bench. Both of the sarcophagi are covered in a faded green shroud.

"A chauffeur used to bring a cleaning lady who went in and dusted the room, but that hasn't happened for at least 10 years now," he said.

As Tuite's footsteps echo off the walls, his informal lecture continues. He notes the grave of former Gov. Harry Nice.

And finally, he arrives at an intensely poignant place. Over the wall of the marble crypt is a gaily decorated Christmas wreath.

"Several years ago, the Green Mount board gave me two crypts. This is my wife Loretta. She died in 2001," Tuite says as he strokes the cold marble front of the crypt. "The one on top is for me, so, I'll be here one day. Every day, I come by and visit Loretta for a couple of minutes."

Tuite's last day of work was New Year's Eve, and now he plans to visit his sister, who lives in Florida, and catch up on several improvement projects around his Highlandtown home.

"I just didn't do this job for just a paycheck," Tuite reflected. "I took pride in my work."

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