He’s the last one to let you down. It’s a joke told about Thomas Sullivan, head of the Boston cemetery division, but there’s truism in the humor. Sullivan oversees three active cemeteries – Mount Hope, Fairview and Evergreen – where between 800 and 1,000 people are buried every year. But while there’s always flower beds to be weeded, debris to be cleared, grass to be mowed – and graves to be dug – Sullivan never wearies of his service to “loved ones and their families.” “There is a saying that if a life is worth living, it is worth remembering,” said Sullivan. “A final resting place is an important part of our culture and it’s vital that we keep our doors open and available and continue to offer that to Boston.” While he says the municipal cemeteries will never be like the more elite privately owned Mount Auburn or Forest Hills – Sullivan calls those “different animals” – he prides himself in running one of the better city cemeteries around. The Globe spoke with Sullivan about why he never lays down on the job.
“Initially I was a little hesitant when I came onto this job because I had not been in the cemetery world before. It wasn’t that I was squeamish but there was some mystery around the rite of burial. It’s not rocket science, but if we are doing a ‘reopener’ or second burial, it’s important to do due diligence to make sure that person belongs in that grave. The last thing you want is someone else coming out of the woodwork a few years later, claiming that they actually had the right to go into the last spot. I even became a notary to help along the internment verification process. My office is at Mount Hope, in a historic building built in 1901. It reminds me of a place Sherlock Holmes would have, with original handwork, 15-foot ceilings and fireplace. This is where I make sure our 200 acres of cemetery land and 100,000 gravestones are properly maintained by a staff of 40; we also take care of 16 historic cemeteries. It’s not unusual to have four to five burials in one cemetery, three in another, and two in a third cemetery, all i the same day. Every season has its challenges. If it’s a brutal winter, just getting the cemetery roads plowed and open for motorcades is a huge ordeal. But we have never delayed a burial in the years since I’ve been here. The height of spring and summer is a daunting grounds task. There are some days when we go out there and shake our heads, ‘We have to put our work boots on today.’ Every year it seems we’re buying 30 new weed whackers, because they’re running 6-7 hours a day and literally burn out. We do about 10-20 disinterments a year. Five years ago, I received a call from the office of a wealthy gentleman, and there were some questions around the relatives to the estate. They dug him up to get a DNA sample. Not to be morbid, but thank god it was an older grave, because there were only bones remaining. In another the one, the family wanted to go back in and get a ring off the finger of a loved one. They say that cemeteries are for the living, but when I’m alone, walking around here, I’ve wondered if the dead could speak to me. I haven’t had any supernatural experiences yet, but I’m open to it. I’m definitely open to it.”