When her beloved Aunt Mary passed away, 15-year-old Sheri Booker sought solace in an unusual summer job — at the Albert P. Wylie Funeral Home in the heart of Baltimore.
Booker's new memoir, Nine Years Under, describes the job that became a nine-year career and lifelong fascination with the business of burials.
"After Aunt Mary died, I felt like I needed closure," Booker explains. "I wanted answers. I wanted to make sure that she was in good hands, so I found a way into the funeral home, and it was only supposed to be a summer, but it ended up being nine years!"
The job gave Booker a unique view of inner-city Baltimore at a time when drugs and gang violence terrorized the neighborhoods. Young men she knew from high school routinely ended up on display in the Wylie Funeral home. As these young homicide victims came to the funeral home, sometimes the violence followed them there.
"We actually had a shootout at the funeral home one day when I was there," Booker says. "All of a sudden, you just heard all this chaos, and people were running up the stairs and just banging, and come to find out there was a drive-by right outside the funeral home, someone was trying to shoot this young man's brother."
Eventually, Booker reached her ceiling at the funeral home and decided to leave the co-workers she had come to think of as family. But, she says, she hasn't thrown in the towel completely.
"My ultimate goal is to own my own funeral home one day," Booker says. And while she hopes to make her establishment a family-run business, she wouldn't want her own daughter employed in one.
"You know, I was ready to face death at that point in my life, and I can't say that the next American or the next person would be able to handle something as great as that and the responsibility that it has."
WADE GOODWYN, HOST:
It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Wade Goodwyn.
When Sheri Booker was 15 years old, she took on the most unusual job for a teenager: she went to work in a Baltimore funeral home. She has written about her time working that job in the book "Nine Years Under." The result is a witty, irreverent coming-of-age memoir unlike any other. Sheri Booker, welcome to the program.
SHERI BOOKER: Thank you for having me.
GOODWYN: Early in the book, you write about your Aunt Mary who, I guess, had been very important to you, and she became ill. And you write on page two: After weeks of hospice care and enough meds to tranquilize an army, Aunt Mary slipped through our fingers like $20,000 on a gambler's bad day. No little girl wants to stand by and witness her hero surrender. I wish someone had told me back then that hospice care was the beginning of the end. Then I wouldn't have blamed myself for not doing enough. I wouldn't have felt ignored by God. Was Aunt Mary an inspiration for this book?
BOOKER: She certainly was. My Aunt Mary - she was like a grandmother to me. She is the reason I am spoilt to this day. She was always there. She was my father's great-aunt, and she was my great-great-aunt. And she lived with us from the time I was born until she passed away when I was 15 years old. She was my everything.
GOODWYN: Her death led you to Wylie's Funeral Home.
BOOKER: Absolutely. If my Aunt Mary had not passed away, there is no way I would have ended up working in a funeral home. But after Aunt Mary died, I felt like I needed closure. And so while most people run away from death, I ran towards it. I wanted answers. I wanted to make sure that she was in good hands. So I found a way into the funeral home. And it was only supposed to be a summer, and it ended up being nine years.
GOODWYN: And you take us inside that world. And in a way, it was the beginning of your education. Talk to me a little bit about your neighborhood. And your parents - your father was a police officer; your mother was a school principal. They kept you pretty protected from the Baltimore neighborhood that was all around you.
BOOKER: Yes. Growing up, I was kind of like a bookworm, and so I was pretty naive and green to certain things, whereas the funeral home was in a totally different neighborhood in West Baltimore - things that I had never seen growing up, actually.
GOODWYN: One of the things I learned from your book is that working at a funeral home is kind of like being on stage, that death lends each day a certain gravitas. Was each showing a little bit like a performance piece for you?
BOOKER: I don't know if I would call it a performance piece, but I dealt with grieving families. So I had to be in a different frame of mind to be able to deal with those families who were grieving, and a lot of emotions. But the rule was that I wasn't allowed to cry or be emotional regardless of what I saw on a day-to-day basis. So if it was a baby, if it was a homicide, if there was someone who died naturally, a cute, little old lady, I wasn't allowed to cry.
BOOKER: One of the things - I will say that at first, when I first started working there, I would cry every time I saw someone in there. As soon as I saw someone else cry, I'm like, oh, my God. I can't believe it. Why? Why? Why? And then my boss just came to me one day, and he's like, no, you cannot do this. Look at the wall, look at the floor, do something, but you cannot cry in my funeral home. It gave me tougher skin, and it made me take my job a lot more seriously.
GOODWYN: Albert P. Wylie is a important, if not the most important character in the book, and I think someone who was important to you.
GOODWYN: Early on, you describe him as a hustler. What was it about Wylie that made him such a good funeral home director?
BOOKER: He treated every case like it was his own loved one. And that's what he taught us to do. He had a reputation. And people admired him, and they looked up to him, because he - he's that person that when you drive through the neighborhood and you wave your hand up, he's going to holler back at you: Hey, how you doing? And, you know, he's that familiar face. Not to mention that he had great swagger and a great personality. He had a great - he drove a Cadillac and, you know, he's just there. He's visible.
GOODWYN: He had a reputation.
GOODWYN: A good one. As the years go by, you begin to learn about just how rough things are out there in the poor black community that surrounds Wylie Funeral Home, and it moves you to start writing poetry. And you wrote a poem called "Endangered Black Man." I wonder if you would read that poem to us.
BOOKER: (Reading) Confined to the streets, oppressed, you will never be free. Free from your own bondage. Incarcerated not only by physical means, but, black man, you are mentally bound to your cage and you're still not enraged. You just don't get it. Endangered black man, you have destroyed me, the voice of the black tomorrow. And now all our people see is sorrow. And no cries of empathy do we ever hear. Never have they shed a tear, but because of you, I live in fear. Endangered black man.
GOODWYN: That's a - there's a lot of emotion in that poem - anger and sorrow and fear.
BOOKER: Mm-hmm. Yeah. You know, we did see cases of retaliation, and we actually had a shootout at the funeral home one day when I was there. A young man was on view, and all of a sudden you just heard all of this chaos and people are running up the stairs and just banging. And come to find out, there was a drive-by right outside of the funeral home. Someone was trying to shoot this young man's brother.
GOODWYN: Let's talk about the embalming room in the basement.
GOODWYN: You talk about it first like it's Frankenstein's laboratory. You're terrified to set foot down there. But over time, you grow into the embalming room yourself. Tell us that story.
BOOKER: OK. So here was the deal. I started working there when I was 15. My parents really didn't mind, but the one rule that my father said was whatever you do, do not go in the basement where they do the embalming. But one day, Mr. Wylie called me down in the basement, and I was terrified. I crept down the steps, and I'm like, oh, my God. Heart is beating, racing. I'm starting to feel nauseous. I don't know what I'm going to see.
BOOKER: And then he asked me to come in the next room and wipe down a casket. And Mr. Wylie's in that room embalming. And I'm like, oh, my God. What have I walked into? Once I realized I could stomach it, I became more curious, and so I just walked over and started asking him a lot of questions. And he basically walked me through the process from where he was.
And in that particular day, it was actually a suicide case of a young male. And I would never forget that day because he had inscribed his suicide letter on his arm, and it said: I want Peanut to cut my hair, and I want my eyes open. And I just will never, ever forget those words for the rest of my life.
GOODWYN: But Peanut did not cut his hair, and his eyes were not left open, were they?
BOOKER: No. Not at all.
GOODWYN: Which speaks to another issue, which is, you know, despite the wishes of the dead, once they are dead, the wishes of the living often take precedence.
BOOKER: I always say, you know, death is not about the person who passed away. It's always about the person who's still left here.
GOODWYN: You're now a writer and a teacher, but it's always good to have a trade. Do you think you're done with the funeral home business or might you go back?
BOOKER: My ultimate goal is to own my own funeral home one day. I would like to get back in the business. I enjoyed servicing families and being there to be their support system. I do not want to embalm every day, but I know the business. It's something that I know very well in, and that I would definitely like to get back in it.
GOODWYN: And so would you recommend to your young daughter at age 15: You know, you should work in a funeral home.
BOOKER: Absolutely not.
BOOKER: You know, I was ready to face death at that point in my life, and I can't say that the next American or the next person would be able to handle something as great as that and the responsibility that it has.
GOODWYN: Sheri Booker is the author of "Nine Years Under," a coming-of-age memoir of her time working in a Baltimore funeral home. Sheri, thanks so much.
BOOKER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.