By Mary Carole McCauley, The Baltimore Sun
June 1, 2013
Baltimore author Sheri Booker sees dead people.
In her mind's eye, she can clearly remember the 600-pound man whose corpse had to be hoisted by a crane out of his apartment window, the teenage suicide victim who tattooed instructions about his funeral arrangements onto his arm, and the thug whose death incited a brawl that erupted at his viewing and continued into the street.
Booker, who now is 31, began working at the Wylie Funeral Home in West Baltimore in 1997 at age 15, partly as a way of coping with her grief over the death of a beloved aunt. She'd barely recovered from that blow when she learned that her mother was battling multiple myeloma.
"Most people run away from death," Booker said during a recent chat over the phone. "I ran toward it. I felt as though the only people who could help me understand what happened were Mr. Wylie and the other people at the funeral home."
During the next nine years, Booker gained insights into what happens once life ends. "Nine Years Under" is full of anecdotes about people living and dead, as well as the author's observations about funeral customs and the special status held by morticians in African-American culture.
The book identifies Booker's colleagues by their real names, but she has given pseudonyms to the deceased. Funeral home owner Albert Wylie told The Baltimore Sun that he has received a copy of the book but hasn't read it yet.
Booker earned a bachelor's degree in political science at what is now Notre Dame of Maryland University. Since leaving the funeral business in 2006, Booker has taught journalism in Africa and earned a master's degree in creative nonfiction from Goucher College. But during a recent chat, she traced her beginnings as a writer to her long apprenticeship in the embalming room.
How is your mother doing now?
She was only supposed to live for five years after she was diagnosed. It's a struggle, but 15 years later, she's still here. She's a medical miracle. Her doctors don't understand how she's been able to work this long. She's a school principal, and as long as she's with her teachers and her students, she doesn't feel any pain at all.
Were the Wylies aware that you were writing about them?
I started writing the book in 2005 during my last year at the funeral home, and they were all very excited about it. I was taking notes, looking at things from a reporter's eye. I also interviewed Mr. [Albert] Wylie and [his son] Brandon.
But the book has been a long time in coming, so I don't know if it seemed real to them. I dropped off a copy for them the other night, but I don't know if they've read it yet.
At a time in your life when you really needed it, you found a second family at the funeral home.
Mr. Wylie really stepped up to the plate. I don't know if he knew it, but he gave me a safety net. I knew that if something were to happen to my family, I'd have another family to go to.
Sometimes, I felt kind of guilty, because I had two dads in my life, and most of the girlfriends I grew up with did not have a father figure.
When I was in elementary school, I had a crush on Brandon. When I worked at the funeral home, it was a brother-sister rivalry. He'd get on my nerves. Then there was a time when we were pushed together and became very close. Today, we're good friends.
You went from a protected childhood to an inner-city funeral home. Was there any culture shock?
It was unnerving to me to see what's happening in our communities, all the boys who have died from drugs or from crime. They're handsome and they're smart, and the loss of all that potential is just so horrifying.
There was criminal activity going on at some of our funerals, and there was retaliation going on. My father is a police officer, and there were times when we'd both be working the same funeral. I was there when a shootout broke out at a viewing. It was scary.
How did those nine years affect your understanding of death today?
When I first started working there, I was an emotional wreck. But then I stopped crying, and I became numb to death. I basically told myself, "Death is a part of life. It's God's will, and this is how it's supposed to happen."
That worked until I saw certain homicides. Our organist was beaten to death, and his body was in his house for several days before he was found. When I saw his face and his body, that was not something I could wrap my head around.
I was writing then, and it was good for me. It was very soothing to get my thoughts on the page.
It's clear from your book that funeral homes have an elevated importance in the African-American community.
In urban culture, funeral directors have a certain level of prestige. They're right up there with preachers and politicians. They wear suits and drive Cadillacs and Lincolns. In the era of segregation, running a funeral home was one of the only ways that African-American men could legally make money and rise up.
Most funeral directors are active in their churches and in their communities. And they give back. Mr. Wylie, for instance, was the chairman of the board of deacons for our church.
Are there funeral habits and customs that are particular to urban Baltimore?
The memorial T-shirts that say "R.I.P." above a picture of the deceased. They came out of nowhere, and just went, "Boom." First you saw them on friends of the deceased person. Then families started wearing them, and then they spread to the whole funeral party. Now there are different editions of memorial T-shirts.
That personalization is very true to urban culture. There are personalized casket engravings and pillows.
Any other modern funeral customs you want to comment on?
I think the way Facebook is used to announce deaths is kind of alarming. Before, there was a common courtesy. If someone died, you wouldn't tell them over the phone. You'd find a way to tell them in person. I don't want to find out online that someone I know has died.
About the book
"Nine Years Under: Coming of Age in an Inner-City Funeral Home" was released Thursday by Gotham Books. $26; 277 pages.
If you go
Author Sheri Booker will read from her memoir at 7 p.m. Monday at the Ivy Bookshop, 6080 Falls Road. Free. Call 410-377-2966 or go to theivybookshop.com.
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