Death at Our Doorstep
As we ride the Joey towards Davis Square, Tufts students risk missing a monument to mortality just outside the bus windows.
Doherty Funeral Home’s position just feet from our campus is somewhat ironic. The busy bustle of college life and College Avenue surround the quiet white funeral parlor. Students, often wrapped up in studying, interning, and socializing, pay no mind to the business that stands just feet away from the gold and black sign advertising their university.
“If I’m being honest, I’ve never even noticed it. I’m usually too busy talking to whomever I’m with to really look around, which is kind of horrible,” admitted freshman Allie Dawson.
Yet the fact that Tufts students pay the business no mind hardly comes as a surprise. Funeral homes have long had a stigma in society, as they mark the one part of life that we ignore on a day-to-day basis. Especially because it is a stone’s throw from a community of youth that work every day to build bright futures, Doherty stands as a reminder that we are working towards the same end.
However, the funeral home’s exterior does not reflect the morbid reality of its purpose. Its white exterior boasts red awnings, which “make it look more like a bed and breakfast or Holiday Inn,” according to sophomore Ellie Doyle.
In contrast to this gleaming exterior, the interior is darker, with red décor set against hardwood floors. The building, like most homes or fraternity houses in Somerville, is larger than it first appears. It is a striking, elegant space in which mourners can appreciate their loved ones.
Upon my visit to Doherty, I was greeted at the door by staff member who, unsure of my purpose, inquired humorously, “Nobody in your family died, right?” I assured him of my family’s safety and quietly knocked on the nearest wood cabinet for good luck.
Soon, I met Nancy Doherty, one of the home’s four funeral directors along with her sister, brother, and a partner. The family establishment began as a storefront in 1906, when families preferred to host wakes at home. In the 1930s, when Americans turned more fervently to religion to escape The Great Depression, Doherty moved across the street from St. Clement’s parish to serve its congregation. Not insignificantly, this move helped keep Doherty financially solvent.
The Dohertys were lucky. One warm day in 1949, Nancy’s father was relaxing in the Nathan Tufts park, “where he liked to hang out back then,” says Nancy, when he saw the owner of the enormous white house put up a “For Sale” sign. Mr. Doherty “ran home to grab a one hundred dollar bill and paid Mr. Baker his deposit” right then and there. Out of the thirteen funeral homes that coexisted in Somerville at the time, Doherty, in its new white house, endured to become one of just two today.
After hearing that Doherty managed to survive even through the dotcom boom of the 80s—when most Generation X-ers were looking past their family businesses and towards new opportunities—I asked Nancy how they had managed to stay afloat. Familial leadership and work ethic was her answer.
“We always had someone in the family to pass the business on to,” she said. “When my dad started getting older, he called me one day and said “you’ve got to go to [funeral directing] school.’ And that was that. I went.”
“To want to do what your parents do is common in any field,” she theorized, but happens so much more frequently when there is a profitable business to pass on. Doherty is set for the next couple of decades, between family members and the fourth funeral director and partner, Augie, whom Nancy spoke of as somewhat of an anomaly in the field because of his passion; he chose to enter funeral directing after only a small internship experience in a home.
It is not often that people choose funeral directing as their calling. While Doherty Funeral Home is both elegant and sentimental, the workers themselves are frequently taxed both “physically an emotionally.” Nancy and her family walk constantly with the weight of caskets and their customers’ despair on their shoulders, forced by their business to be available every hour and every day of the year, ready to pick up the next body or hold the next service. In this business, Nancy admits, “there are no real holidays,” especially with a rate of 250-300 funerals at Doherty each year.
Nonetheless, the staff of Doherty home enjoys being deeply intertwined with the larger Medford and Somerville community as well as parts of Cambridge and Arlington. Often, they are warmed by the personal connections they develop with customers, both in the mourning stages and the process of pre-need planning.
These warm connections, however, do not extend across Powder House Boulevard into the Tufts community to foster more than a “good neighbor” relationship. Perhaps the Tufts student who worked as a secretary at Doherty ten years ago was the foundation and maybe the faculty families who occasionally use the home’s services are the bricks, but neither party has found the right means to establish a meaningful bridge between the brimming, boisterous college and the solemn, yet fascinating, establishment of the funeral home.
Yet this lack of community interaction is not surprising. Despite their physical proximity, Tufts University and Doherty Funeral Home cannot be further apart in purpose: Tufts prepares young people for the rest of their lives and while Doherty prepares families for the inevitable end, and each goes about its business, happy to exist side by side.
For the few students that have noticed Doherty’s presence, this idea has made a profound—if fleeting—impact.
“A few times I’ve passed and there have been mourners outside, and that always makes me stop and think for a bit about the fact that people I will never know but who were important to people die every day,” said freshman Luca Eisen.
It is this recognition of death that is equally difficult to digest and important to consider as we celebrate our own youth. Doherty Funeral Home presents an opportunity for the Tufts community to reflect on not only on our own mortality, but also on the vibrancy of our own lives—even if just for a moment.