As Walter A. Cuffe Jr. expanded the Lynn funeral home his father had started, he and his wife, Sally, decided to move their family into an apartment above their new, larger location.
That allowed him to work around the clock as he tended to grieving families and answered phone calls at any hour of the night, and it also ensured that he rarely missed dinner with his family.
“We were really brought up right in the center of it,” said one of his daughters, Katy Cuffe-Burgess of Danvers, who works in the family business. “But the reason they took that chance was that if my father was going to give 100 percent to the business, they wanted to make sure he was committed to us, too.”
Mr. Cuffe, owner and operator of Cuffe-McGinn Funeral Home, died at his home on May 30, only weeks after being diagnosed with cancer. He was 70.
Early in his career, his commitment to helping others earned him a reputation as a source of advice in Lynn, whether it was about caring for dying loved ones and making funeral arrangements or applying to colleges, a subject Mr. Cuffe knew well from his earlier career as a high school guidance counselor.
“His passion was taking care of people. It was a vocation for him,” said Tom Newhall, who was in high school when he began training under Mr. Cuffe and now is the head funeral director at Cuffe-McGinn.
Over two afternoons of calling hours, thousands waited up to three hours to pay their respects to Mr. Cuffe, Newhall said. Among them were his classmates from the former Salem State College, who were in the area to attend a 50-year reunion. Mr. Cuffe had spent the past year helping to plan the gathering, his wife said.
Mr. Cuffe was born into the funeral home business. His father, Walter Sr., had owned W.A. Cuffe and Son Funeral Home.
After graduating in 1958 from St. Mary’s High School in Lynn, Mr. Cuffe went to what then was Salem State College, from which he graduated in 1962 with a bachelor’s degree in education. He also served as senior class president.
Just before graduating, Mr. Cuffe first noticed another senior, Sally Chase. At the college, it was customary for seniors to wear their graduation robe during finals week. She was studying in the library when Mr. Cuffe, seeing her robe, approached and asked if she planned to attend a reception for seniors at a country club. They decided to go together.
He later told her he knew he would marry her by the second date.
They married in July 1966, the same year he graduated from Salem State with a master’s in education in the field of guidance.
Mr. Cuffe also attended the New England Institute, where he studied anatomy, embalming, and funeral directing, graduating in 1963.
Initially helping his father part time, Mr. Cuffe worked as a social worker for the City of Lynn, and then was a business teacher and guidance counselor in Lynn at Breed junior high and Classical High School.
In 1976, Mr. Cuffe and his wife purchased William E. McGinn Funeral Home on Maple Street, which became part of his family’s business. The following year, he retired from the school system to turn his full attention to being a funeral director. In 1981 the Cuffes enlarged their Maple Street location and closed the family’s original Johnson Street funeral home.
“I think it was really his calling to guide people in funeral service,” said his daughter, who added that it wasn’t a dramatic change from being a guidance counselor “because he was still leading people.”
Over the years, the Cuffes expanded the business to one that employs six funeral directors and handles about 400 funerals a year, Newhall said.
“He always told us, and he said it up to the day he died, that these people are coming to you at the worst time of their lives,” Newhall said. “Treat them as if they’re your own families, with the utmost dignity and respect.”
Mr. Cuffe’s daughter said many people he came to know over the years did become like family, including his former students, the families the business served, and his employees.
Newhall, for example, was a high school student with designs on becoming an auto mechanic when he began washing the funeral home’s cars.
“It turned into Walter working his guidance counselor magic, saying, ‘You think you’ll be a good mechanic, why don’t you try funeral service? You’ll do well in funeral service,’ ” Newhall said. “He was absolutely right. I don’t know what it was. It’s like he had a vision for people.”
In recent years, Mr. Cuffe had stepped into the role of senior funeral director, a position that allowed him to be a mentor and spend winters in Florida.
He dedicated his free time to his seven grandchildren and a few organizations he held dear out of the many with which he had been involved, including the local schools, the Wyoma Lions Club, and what is now Salem State University. His greatest wish had been to attend his reunion the first weekend in June, his daughter said.
A service was held for Mr. Cuffe, who in addition to his wife and daughter leaves two other daughters, Kelley Howells of Marblehead and Kerrin Morley of Watertown; a sister, Loretta Cuffe-O’Donnell of Lynn; and seven grandchildren.
Mr. Cuffe’s family said he displayed his trademark concern for others when diagnosed.
His first reaction to news that there was no treatment available was to ask if anything could be done to him that could help others similarly afflicted. His family was overwhelmed by his selflessness, his daughter said.