By Alexa Epitropoulos | [email protected]
Ivy Hill Cemetery Executive Director Lucy Goddin doesn’t see death when she walks the grounds of the historic Rosemont burial place.
“When I come here, I see life,” Goddin said. “I see the flora and fauna. I see wildflowers that are hard to find anywhere else in Alexandria. I see 200-year-old trees that we are trying our best to take care of. I see neighbors greeting neighbors. I see, at funerals, families gathering who maybe have never met each other. There’s a lot of love. There’s drama and a lot of sad stuff that happens too, but mostly it’s happy and peaceful.”
Goddin, an eighth generation Alexandria resident who was born Lucy Burke, grew up coming to Ivy Hill with her parents to visit the graves of family and friends. She estimates that a hundred or more of her relatives are buried there. She spent years as a visitor, volunteer and head of the Ivy Hill Historical Preservation Society before being named executive director in September of last year.
“I guess I ended up here because it’s a sense of roots. My entire family, on both sides, going back five generations, is out here in the cemetery and I just have a passion for the place. It’s just been a natural fit and I love it,” she said.
As executive director, Goddin both leads the cemetery in the day-to-day, including selling remaining plots for burial and cremation, and plots a path for the future to preserve the historic site when the cemetery runs out of space to sell.
That has meant building a reputation for Ivy Hill by hosting events, including periodic Edgar Allan Poe readings by Guillotine Theatre, a ghost story series called “Tales from the Crypt,” Halloween events and Women & Wine events in collaboration with Volunteer Alexandria.
Goddin has also opened the cemetery to the community, allowing dog walking on the grounds, provided the dogs are always on a leash. There’s also community tie-ins, such as hosting wreath-layings for the graves of veterans and Eagle Scout service projects. She and staff members have also started serving as ambassadors at city events to get the word out, including the annual George Washington Birthday Parade and events involving history and community.
“The more people here, the better. The more this place is loved, the more eyes on things,
and the more people coming to me and saying, ‘Did you notice this tree fell?’” Goddin said. “… The more people buy into it, the more successful the cemetery. I love people walking here all the time. They’re not coming here to buy sites – how cool is that? That’s not a direct intention, but it’s an indirect result of opening our doors and saying, ‘We would love for you to come and enjoy our 22 acres of green space.’”
Goddin’s passion for the job is evident, especially to her board members, including longtime member Arthur Herbert Bryant. Bryant is a relative of Colonel Arthur Herbert, while Goddin is the great-great-granddaughter of John Woolfolk Burke. The men founded Burke & Herbert Bank and purchased the land the cemetery now resides on from Hugh Charles Smith.
“Our families together have been in stewardship for the cemetery since its founding,” Bryant said. “… Lucy has been a volunteer of some sort since she was a little kid. She and her mother used to take walks to the cemetery, talk about relatives. She’s always had a passion for it.”
Bryant said Goddin has changed the feel of the cemetery dramatically since taking the helm.
“She breathes life into that organization and into that cemetery. It’s hard to explain what that means, but when you think about the death care industry, it’s either really somber or sad or it can be uplifting. Lucy has done an extraordinary job of making Ivy Hill into a happy, vibrant place that’s not just for your final rest, but an organization that’s part of the fabric of the Alexandria community,” Bryant said.
Though Ivy Hill has long been part of Goddin’s life, she never expected to work there. She made her career as a pre-school teacher, spending 14 years at Arlington Cooperative Preschool. When her children, now 23 and 25, entered middle school, Goddin retired as a teacher. She started as a volunteer at Ivy Hill and slowly became more involved, becoming head of the preservation society before being named executive director.
It might seem like a giant leap from teaching to leading a storied final resting place, but Goddin said there are many skills she’s carried with her from teaching to Ivy Hill, particularly when it comes to leadership and communication.
Ivy Hill Board Chairman Dana Lawhorne said those qualities have allowed Goddin to continue building the cemetery’s reputation.
“Lucy does an excellent job of managing the day-today affairs. She does it with dignity and respect for the families and anybody who comes in contact with her.
… I rely on her to maintain operations to get the job done,” Lawhorne said. “… She has helped us sustain the huge improvements that Bruce Johnson, her predecessor, made, during his three years as general manager. She’s helped sustain all his efforts to turn that cemetery around. She’s also been our creative spirit to keep the cemetery alive with everything she does.”
Goddin said it’s experience, along with her sense of humor and instincts, that help her build relationships with families who are contending with loss.
“You’ve got to read your clients. Some people don’t appreciate a sense of humor when they are really sad, but some people like being jollied out of something,” Goddin said. “Respect is number one, so you have to read people and balance it. My parents taught me a very fun, twisted sense of humor and there are a lot of times when it’s really appropriate, and there are times when I have to check it. But there are also times when it’s not funny. You kind of have to be a people person to know when to say something and when not to say something.”
Relationship building is also paramount in paving the way for a future for Ivy Hill, Goddin said. She is still working with her closely-knit, six-member staff to figure out how many spaces are left to sell. She anticipates all spaces being sold within the next 15 years.
Regardless of how much time is left for sales, Goddin said she’s thinking about the cemetery’s well-being centuries from now, and has examined the models of other cemeteries, such as Congressional Cemetery in D.C.
“A lot of old cemeteries are doing this because when you sell out, and there’s no more
income, you still have a responsibility to the people here. So, I do have people say, ‘Isn’t it disrespectful to have dog walking and events?’ And maybe it is, but it’s more disrespectful to let the place die,” Goddin said. “We need to make a plan for 100, 200 years from now.”
Goddin said the success of Ivy Hill is a credit to her staff, who she said act as a sounding board for ideas and go above and beyond in taking care of the cemetery itself as well as grieving families.
After celebrating a year as executive director last month, Goddin said she is focused on continuing to make progress. In the near future, she has plans to rehabilitate the two-story house that serves as the cemetery office and open a museum and gift shop. In the longer term, she wants to preserve the future of the cemetery for its permanent residents.
“I think we are at the beginning of the shift to the preservation society, so getting people here for the events, the lectures, going to them or hosting them, getting people to come and bring me ideas. [We want to] build the support, to get people to love it, to help it grow in that way,” Goddin said.