The joke is that Carmen Colao knows where all the bodies are buried. That's not far from the truth. The longtime director of Buffalo Diocesan Cemeteries can tell you that Yankees manager Joe McCarthy is buried at Mount Olivet and he knew about the unmarked grave of the mob informant at Gate of Heaven. That kind of knowledge comes with 29 years in the cemetery business.
Now, after nearly three decades with diocesan cemeteries and another 11 years with the Finance Department, Colao plans to retire.
A self-proclaimed "numbers guy," Colao was working as assistant controller for the diocese when asked if he would take over as cemeteries director.
"I never regretted it, in terms of taking on this role," he said just a few weeks before his last day. "I was intrigued by what the cemeteries actually do. It's more than just burying the dead. There's the ministry side and what we do. I always say, cemeteries are for the living. Everything we do here is for the people who come to visit, pay their respects, and remember their loved ones. We've been entrusted to take care of them."
Diocesan Cemeteries offers a memorial Mass each month for those who have passed in the previous 30 days, as well as Masses for Memorial Day, All Souls' Day and the Christmas season. A host of bereavement services are also offered, including a lecture series, a potluck dinner and the Bridging Out in New Directions support group. Colao lists those programs as his proudest accomplishments.
"I think we have a very extensive bereavement service here. I feel most proud about those programs that directly helped our families. We're helping families in our best way to try to get them to heal when going through a difficult time," he explained.
Colao also oversaw the building of new mausoleums with 30,000 casket spaces for above-ground placement when they became popular in the 1980s. He tries to stay in touch with what his customers want, from traditional ground burial to community mausoleums to cremations needs. "In the last 10 years or so, we have dramatically increased the options for families interested in choosing cremation," he said.
His role goes beyond that of a 9 to 5 job. He likes to visit other cemeteries to see what they offer. During a family vacation to Disney World, he made a side trip to a crematory.
Looking back at his 40 years with the diocese, Colao recalled moving the remains of Venerable Nelson H. Baker from Holy Cross Cemetery in Lackawanna to Our Lady of Victory National Shrine and Basilica in 1999, to create a more public viewing of his grave.
"That is probably the most interesting thing to be a part of," he said. "Just the whole story of Father Baker and how much he meant to the community. He was buried there since 1936. He was in the ground for a good 60 years. I think it was such an important part of this process. I was very proud that we were a part of that."
Schools have come to tour the grounds. Colao welcomes them as the cemeteries tell the history of Western New York.
"Holy Cross is our most historic cemetery. You can sum up the immigrants who came here and settled in the area through Holy Cross," he pointed out. "All of those immigrants who came here at that time, many of them are buried at that cemetery. The development of Western New York can be found in that cemetery. That's my favorite cemetery."
Van Miller, placed next to the "Touchdown Jesus" stained glass window in Resurrection Mausoleum at Mount Olivet Cemetery in Kenmore, has "Voice of the Bills" printed under his name. Colao remembers the renowned sportscaster promised to mention Catholic Cemeteries on the air if Colao cut him a deal.
Colao's last day in the office will be Sept. 27. Then he will attend the National Catholic Cemetery Conference Convention in Chicago with his successor Michael Attea, who has over 12 years as a Family Service Counselor for the cemeteries. When Attea returns to Buffalo, Colao and his wife, Anna Maria, will head to their new home in Arizona.
"We're going to settle in the Scottsdale area, very close to where my son and his family live. We have two grandchildren out there," he said. "I've lived here my entire life. I don't ski. I'd rather play golf. In the wintertime you make do. You get through it. I've always said to my wife, 'You know what? When I retire, we're going to disappear from January to the end of April. I don't want to see a snowflake anymore.'"
Anna Maria first opposed the idea, not wanting to go four months without seeing their grandchildren. When their son moved to Arizona, she started asking, "When are you going to retire?"